Conor Mark Jameson, who might be familiar to readers of the blog from his involvment in getting the TH White memorial plaque up at the World Center at Boise, or for his excellent book Looking for the Goshawk, has a new title out: Shrewdunnit: The Nature Files.
Shrewdunnit is done in an old form, one currently neglected, perhaps as old- fashioned, in the US, and still done very well in England– a year’s observations, mostly of one place (although he is a thoroughly modern naturalist and also
goes abroad); a phenology, a record, a series of sketches light and
Such a book stands or falls by two things: how well the writer knows his chosen place, and how well he writes, how originally he he can see. Conor succeeds on both counts. Here he is on a Sparrowhawk who has just begun to “unwrap”– nice verb- his prey:
“This male hawk is little bigger than the blackbirds haranguing it; certainly leaner… Like David Beckham about to take a corner kick, to fire the ball into the goal with deadly accuracy, in front of jeering opposition fans, the hawk is inured to such abuse. This is what I do. This is what I do well. I don’t expect you to like me for it.”
In a smaller country, he is properly as excited by the presence of a stoat or a “ghost” barn owl as I might be by a mountain lion; predators define a landscape. He looks for adders (he says “I have always revered snakes”) and wonders if they will ever find their way back to his neighborhood; I have never thought before about how hard it is for a snake to migrate once it has gone from a place, and who mourns venomous snakes? He listens closely enough to a cuckoo to hear the breaths between its call; I have done this with the nightjar called a whippoorwill back in my native New England, and his account brings back a naturalist’s memory. He watches migrants, but doesn’t keep obsessive lists; a fault by some standards, but one I confess I share; there are more interesting observations to make. He describes a dinner with one of my favorite English nature writers, Mark Cocker, who decants a dubious pile of egg cartons containing odd moths and worse in front of his students, saying “You’ve just got to go out and find some weirdness.” You sense that would be Conor’s perfect motto: he is always a serious naturalist, but never a solemn one.
He is, as a modern observer, international enough in his interests and travels that he writes about the terrible vulture crisis in India, where the side effects of Diclofenac, an anti- inflammatory drug given to cattle, has brought several species to the brink of extinction. But, traveling, he can also have a light epiphany on the high alpine Italian ridges near where Otzi, “The Iceman” was found, realizing that a rolling flock of Alpine choughs floating overhead is watching him as much as he is watching them. His knowledge, earned and deep and local, is balanced by his quirky humor and quirky insights. In the title essay, his bad pun comes from realizing that the culprit who has been leaving dead goldfish by a neighbor’s pond is a water shrew, that delightful and little-seen mammal Konrad Lorenz wrote an essay on many years ago, still the only place most of us have encountered it.
Shrewdunnit is the kind of book you can keep at your bedside or bathroom, where you can dip into at will for new insights, facts, or natural entertainment. I hope that Jameson will write “heavier” more serious books, but I hope he will also keep us up with this kind of work, and play, too. I will buy any book like this as long as he writes them.