Mark Cocker

The world is ablaze – yet climate chaos still takes us by surprise

In the light of recent fire emergencies on the Greek islands and in the wider Mediterranean, this book has just acquired even more relevance. It centres on another catastrophe in May 2016, a Canadian inferno nicknamed the ‘Beast’, which has become the most expensive natural disaster in the country’s history. Within three weeks, Fort McMurray’s

Thrills and trills

In a sense, the song of the bird in the title of this short, hugely thoughtful and fascinating book is a measure of the gap between nature and human culture. On the one hand stands the most mythologised, celebrated and interrogated maker of natural sound on earth: the nightingale. On the other, the most densely

Living trees that predate the dinosaurs

It is perhaps easy to understand why some of the Earth’s largest trees, with roots spreading deep into the underworld as their upper limbs ascend to heaven, are charged with symbolic importance. Yet the origins of our fixation are perhaps surprising. To give one example, the Buddha was said to have attained enlightenment beneath the

Finally, the Sherpas are heroes of their own story

John Keay has for many years been a key historian and prolific contributor to the romance attaching to the highest mountains on Earth. His latest book is described as a summation of that lifetime’s contribution, offering an overview of the Himālaya – the Sanskrit version (‘Abode of Snow’) that Keay bids us use – both

The catastrophe that allowed mammals to reign supreme

Humans are so comfortable with their self-declared dominance over the rest of life, appointing themselves titular head of an entire geological age in the ‘Anthropocene’, that we forget how we are party to a much wider evolutionary alliance: the mammals. Steve Brusatte announces that mammals reign supreme upon this planet. One thinks especially of their

Adapt or die: what the natural world can teach us about climate change

Climate change may be the central challenge of our century, but almost all attention has focused on its consequences for one organism: Homo sapiens. In an original, wide-ranging and carefully researched book, the American biologist Thor Hanson addresses its implications for the rest of life. Rather than overwhelming us with a sense of catastrophe, he

Richard Dawkins delights in his own invective

The late Derek Ratcliffe, arguably Britain’s greatest naturalist since Charles Darwin, once explained how he cultivated a technique for finding golden plovers’ nests. As he walked across the featureless moor, ‘the gaze’, he wrote, had to be ‘concentrated as far ahead as possible, not in one place, but scanning continuously over a wide arc from

Where time stands still: a Himalayan pilgrimage

The region of Dolpo in Nepal forms part of a border zone between that country and China in the central Himalayas. It is essentially a high-altitude desert encircled by towering snow-capped peaks and has long been celebrated in the West as a real-life version of Shangri-La. Part of the image flows from the restricted access

Where did birds first learn to sing?

The crisis inflicted by Covid-19 has been a source of anguish for everyone; yet we frequently hear how people are rediscovering solace in nature, especially in their gardens or in the surging renewal of life in the spring. According to Tim Burt and Des Thompson, the editors of a collection of essays about the importance

Mother nature is finally getting the art she deserves

I guess that few would currently dispute that the world is in crisis. I’m not talking about Covid-19. Nor am I primarily addressing the issues arising from the 36 billion tonnes of carbon that the human project sends into our atmosphere every year. Climate chaos is a part of the issue, but I’m thinking principally

In the high Himalayas

In my twenties I once visited a lonely spot among the western Himalayas called Zhuldok in the Suru valley. Politically it is part of the Indian state of Jammu and Kashmir, but geographically, ethnically and culturally the region is bound to the Tibetan plateau and its former Buddhist theocracy centred on Lhasa. I remember one

Spooky stories for Halloween

It is surely significant that Ed Parnell’s first novel The Listeners was an updated examination of themes latent in Walter de la Mare’s famously spooky poem of that title. The author credits this predilection for the macabre to an aunt’s VHS recordings of the Quatermass stories in the 1970s, when he was just a small

Return of the iceman

It is more than a generation since the appearance of Barry Lopez’s classic Arctic Dreams. That book’s effortless integration of history, anthropology and ecology, mediated through its author’s radiant prose, introduced a global audience to the frozen north. It freed the frigid ice world from much historical polar literature, conjuring instead landscapes of delicate beauty

Mission improbable

Alex Dehgan is clearly someone with a penchant for hazardous jobs. Even in the first few pages we find him in postwar Baghdad, he had spent the early part of the century searching for Iraqi scientists who had previously worked on weapons’ manufacture for Saddam Hussein. Presumably the life-threatening risks entailed in that role were