Mark Cocker

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

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

Night vision

Like most of our ape ancestors, we have really had only one response to the fall of night. We have stretched and yawned, we have climbed upwards, we’ve lain down somewhere soft, closed our eyes and shut the whole thing out until morning. Humans may have exchanged tree trunks for a set of stairs, and

Pet perversions

It was in his play Back to Methuselah that George Bernard Shaw honoured a lesser known aspect of Charles Darwin’s originality as a thinker, when he described him as ‘an intelligent and industrious pigeon fancier’. Britain’s greatest natural scientist was indeed a keeper of fowl, with pigeons among his favourites. The habit arose from Darwin’s

Wading to extinction

Mary Colwell, a producer at the BBC natural history unit, is on a mission: to save the British curlew from extinction. Yet there is a key moment in this readable, highly informed and heartfelt book, when its author shows you the scale of her challenge. It is at the beginning of her 500-mile trek across

Winged messengers

Even the most cursory glance at the classical period reveals the central place that birds played in the religious and political lives of the two key Mediterranean civilisations. Their gods, for example, were often represented in avian form, so that the Athenian currency bore an owl image, which was intended as a portrait of the

No stone left unturned | 1 February 2018

Alan Bennett once defined a classic as ‘a book everyone is assumed to have read and forgets if they have or not’. The Victorian nature writer Richard Jefferies 1848–1887 is in the peculiarly unfortunate position of having produced a whole library that falls pretty much into this category. His novels such as Bevis (1882) or

Animals make us human

There was a time when biologists so scorned the attribution of human qualities to other animals that anthropomorphism was seen as the ultimate scientific sin and suitable only for children’s stories. Not anymore. Today the inner lives of other creatures are widely accepted as a major research frontier, and here are three books that reflect

On matters maritime

The Greenland shark has to be one of the most fascinating creatures of which you’ve probably never heard. Growing sometimes to 25ft, it is the largest flesh-eating shark, longer even than a great white. It dwells in the deepest northern oceans. It eats seabirds, huge fish and seals, most of which it probably surprises and

Buzzing bees and chocolate trees

It is estimated that the world’s insects perform an annual pollination service for all humankind worth $215 billion. In return, every year, we run up a pesticide bill of about $40 billion to exterminate them (this doesn’t include the $10 billion costs in social and environmental damage wrought by the same chemicals). Why is it

Lord of the Arctic

According to the author of this beautifully illustrated, hugely engaging book, if we were ever to choose a fellow mammal to serve as symbol for our time, then the polar bear would probably make any shortlist. Standing ten feet tall on their hind legs and weighing as much as a ton, the males are the

Trees of life and death

Was it perhaps the landscape historian Oliver Rackham who gave rise to our present preoccupation with old trees through his pioneering works on ancient woodland? He certainly pointed out more than 40 years ago that 10,000 centurion oaks ‘are not a substitute for one 500-year-old oak’. Since then, shelves of books have been written on

Gods and monsters

Although Nepal’s earthquake last April visited our television screens with images of seismic devastation, the disaster has probably had little impact upon the prevailing western impression of this country. For many the mountain state remains steadfastly exotic and remote. This is not just a consequence of those sublimely unattainable Himalayan peaks. For generations Nepal was

Tracking the super cats

Of all charismatic animals, tigers are surely the most filmed, televised, documented, noisily cherished and, paradoxically, the most persecuted on Earth. It is also probably the one wild mammal more people wish to see than any other. In Asia, images of striped cats are indivisible from the modern tourist industries of several countries, especially India

Green is the colour of happiness

According to this wonderfully thought-provoking book, human attachment to plants was much more evident in the 19th century than it is now. In those days people showed genuine wonder at their ‘strange existences and unquantifiable powers’, especially the British, who fashioned the most ambitious glass building of the age —the Crystal Palace in Hyde Park

The soul takes flight

Last month, at Edinburgh School of Art, I was interested to come across a student who’d chosen Marlowe’s Dr Faustus as her end-of-year degree project. In the wonderful stage costume she’d designed for its central figure were three gloriously embroidered butterflies fluttering around his hat. Bats, yes, moths, maybe, but what exactly was the significance

To Hell in a handcart — again

Despite the offer of joy proposed in the subtitle, this is a deeply troubling book by one of Britain’s foremost journalists on the politics of nature. Michael McCarthy was the Independent’s environmental editor for 15 years, and his new work is really a summation of a career spent pondering the impacts of humankind on the