Simon Barnes is an unusual writer. He was a sports writer and editor for the Times for over 30 years, and he also had a birdwatching column, and writes books about horses and about conservation. Sports and ecology aren’t worlds that don’t often go together, but Barnes writes with passion and flair about both.
How to be Wild, naturally, is not about the sport, though plenty of it sneaks in anecdotally. It’s about humanity’s relationship with nature, and our need for wildness. We are isolated from the natural world, in our cities and digital empires. But we can’t escape our wild nature. We’re a part of the world, and “the more we leave the non-human world behind, the less human we become: and the more fearful we become… We lose our sense of trust in the wild world: we begin to forget that we need it.”
Barnes doesn’t resort to haranguing his readers over this, lamenting the state of the world. Neither does he delve into the sociology of nature deficit disorder. Instead, he makes his points by celebrating wild nature. The book begins in winter in his Suffolk home, and he traces the first signs of spring through stories of encounters with birds and bugs. There’s a real enthusiasm to his descriptions, especially his delight in birds and birdsong. It’s not rarified experiences of true wilderness either. Much of it happens around the house and garden, or on walks. There are other people there, his dad or his sons, friends. Journeys usually end in the pub.
This grounds the book in everyday life. It insists that wildness is not always ‘out there’. It’s all around, if we are open to seeing it: “everywhere you look, there is more life than you can conveniently understand.”
In between tales of warblers and swallows and more familiar creatures are stories from further afield. Barnes has a long connection with the Luangwa valley in Zambia, and he writes about hyenas, crocodiles and more exotic fauna too. These too, generally end around a campfire with a bottle of whisky.
Reading about other people’s encounters with wildlife isn’t always going to be the most riveting thing in the world. The book even gets a bit repetitive, although Barnes pre-empts this thought (“Perhaps I’m repeating myself”, he writes. “But then so is nature”) What keeps it humming is the insights scattered throughout, pithy observations on loss, fragility and transcendence buried halfway through an anecdote. “The idea that nature is vulnerable has only been part of the human experience for the past few decades” he notes, a perspective entirely foreign to previous generations of naturalists, Darwin included. Or “Nature is not nice, any more than it is beautiful… Nature merely is, and we are part of it, whether we wish to be or not, beautiful and ugly as we ourselves are.”
It’s a rambling book, in all senses of the word. It’s wilfully ill-disciplined in its digressions, but there is richness and life in its unruliness, like a hedgerow. It makes the book appropriately wild – a true peregrination, in fact.
Speaking of which, “peregrines are birds of hope” says Barnes, and I’ll give him the final word. “Perhaps they are a better symbol of peace than a dove. Because they give out the unambiguous statement that humans can redress some of the mistakes we have made: that rewilding is possible: that the opportunity for an outbreak of peace between humans and nature lies before us.”