Guardian Faber, 2018
Review by Karen Lloyd
In the six intervening years between the publication of Darlington’s previous book, Otter Country (Granta, 2012) and Owl Sense, nature writing has not so much proliferated as become a dynamic eco-system in its own right. It is interesting then, to discover how new niches are continually being created within the nature branch of the publishing industry, in much the same way that replanting the uplands creates new habitats for wildlife itself.
Over recent decades, comparative works such as John Lewis-Stempel’s quietly revolutionary paean to the simple nature of a field, The Running Hare: The Secret Life of Farmland (Black Swan, 2017) is a devout focussing of otherwise absent attention. Jeremy Mynott’s Birdscapes (Princeton University Press, 2012) celebrates all things bird – the meeting place of science and art, history, culture, philosophy, symbolism, beauty and more. With the advent of Mark Cocker’s two monumental surveys Birds Britannica (with Richard Mabey, Chatto and Windus, 2005) and Birds and People (Jonathan Cape, 2013) one wonders if there are any bird stories left to uncover, given the thorough and wide-ranging scope of the books.
In The Fish Ladder (Bloomsbury, 2016) Katherine Norbury follows a personal journey whilst simultaneously engaging with the landscapes of a number of British rivers. Owl Sense contains elements of various forms of engagement; not only the passion of the writer for their subject and a wide compass of investigation, but also the very personal nature of her son’s debilitating and unusual illness, which subsequently becomes a narrative in its own right.
Being out there, being receptive, noticing, listening and getting the naturalists eye in as much as the writer’s eye, is utterly indispensable to any sustained piece of nature writing. Owl Sense finds the author once again travelling on familiar and less familiar territory. In Otter Country, Darlington covered the length and breadth of the UK assessing the range of our riparian otters, deftly handling the wealth of raw materials she finds in the field. In Owl Sense, whether as assistant to a barn owl surveyor in the bosky woodlands of Devon, or in a churchyard in a Hungarian village where 29 long-eared owls roost in a single juniper tree, Darlington carries on that deep tradition of looking and discovering.
What Owl Sense contributes to the genre is a well organised fusion; assiduously observed moments in the landscape; meetings with or stories told by owl experts and fellow enthusiasts; journeys across Europe to key owl habitats, be they the frozen plains of Hungary or Hebridean islands or English moorlands. It is too, a deep and wide mining of the historical and cultural significance associated with the order Strigiform. There are revelatory and unanticipated stories - the double standards of Florence Nightingale keeping a pet owl named Athena, and her subsequent abandoning of it to certain death, shut away in an attic as she travelled to the Crimea to help relieve suffering.
On Mull, Darlington’s descriptive powers are fully engaged during an encounter with a short-eared owl. Here is an acuity of looking and translating:
‘And when it did fly off I saw, or rather heard, its display flight; as the sun flashed like brass on those long slender primary feathers and it clapped its wings together the sound echoed sharply back to us; the brightness of it rang out, as if those wings had been mined from deep out of the moor, their surface forged from metal.'
When her son becomes dangerously ill, this too is folded into the narrative. I cared about what happened to him and it made me reach for the next page, and the next. I had wondered though, if this might then take us into dangerous territory; the whole sub-genre of what might usefully be called ‘misery-nature’ can be problematic. (Yet another nature or swimming cure for mild depression – yawn… Just get off your backside and do or write something useful then!) But Darlington negotiates the strand with compassion and dexterity.
Darlington’s achievement is to make us share in collective wonder for one relatively small niche within the natural world. Perhaps the greater question we are left with after reading a book like Owl Sense, is how we ourselves will continue that act of looking, and of engagement with the subtleties of the natural world. Will the market for nature writing peak and perhaps diminish? If so, it will be interesting to see which of those countless niches remain. How then will we observe not only a reduced set of dialogues about the natural world, but perhaps also nature itself increasingly diminished ?
Karen Llloyd is a writer of creative non-fiction and poetry based in South Cumbria. She contributes to The Guardian Country Diary and is a features writer for BBC Countryfile magazine. In 2016 and 2017 she was commissioned to write about place for The Royal Geographic Society, including an essay on the approach of the anniversary of Storm Desmond. Her work has appeared in a number of journals and magazines including Caught by the River, The Clearing, The Island Review, The Great Outdoors and Scotland Outdoors.
Her first book, The Gathering Tide; A Journey Around the Edgelands of Morecambe Bay, contains writing on land, landscape and memory and was published by Saraband in January 2016. It was included in The Observer’s top books of 2016, and won Eric Robson’s Striding Edge Productions Prize for Place and was runner up at The Lakeland Book of the Year Awards 2016.