Melissa Harrison’s great gift as a nature writer is seeing the miraculous in the everyday. She’s not an explorer, conquering distant hazardous terrains; she writes about the close to home, and especially seasons and weather, which theme this slim volume. Specifically, how rain, that most typically English weather, shapes the landscape and its flora and fauna.
She narrates four long wet walks: in the Cambridgeshire fenland in winter, the hinterland of Shropshire in spring, along the River Darent in Kent in summer, and over Dartmoor in autumn. Diverse landscapes, and all sorts of rain. There’s no drama or narrative, just observations of all that she sees, from micro to macro, and the great marvellous interconnnection of it all: soil, lichen, insects, birds, animals, plants, trees, crops, waterways, land forms, geology, clouds, and light. How this microclimate and this rock and these minerals create this soil, so we get these plants and trees, which means these insects, which means these birds and so on, and behold the web of life in all its glory.
For the reader, it’s like going for a ramble with a keen-eyed knowledgeable friend who can point out interesting stuff along the way and tell you all sorts of things you didn’t know. Owls aren’t waterproof, I learned, and neither are rabbits. And she doesn’t overdo the personal material; there are enough snippets of her memories and reflections to feel a connection with the narrator, but she doesn’t make herself the centre of attention.
The style is a bit awkward at times, but it’s not easy to weave such diverse material together seamlessly, especially in such short form. I loved her last two novels, ‘All among the barley’ and ‘At hawthorn time’, both gritty, complex, satisfying reads, so I could overlook the slight gaucheness of this little miscellany. Melissa Harrison also did a wonderful weekly lockdown podcast last year, The stubborn light of things, in which she, um, went for country walks and narrated what she saw, unscripted. I found this podcast a joy and solace throughout a tough time, so reading this now I could hear her voice and her endearing enthusiasm, so perhaps a slight halo effect for this book. One for Melissa Harrison completists and fangirls, rather than one to start with – but it has made me see rain a bit differently too.