The Best Nature Books of 2020

recommended by Charles Foster

Being a Beast: Adventures Across the Species Divide by Charles Foster

Being a Beast: Adventures Across the Species Divide
by Charles Foster


Charles Foster—the barrister, ethicist and bestselling author of Being a Beast—selects five brilliant nature books that reflect a new boom in nature writing in 2020, many of which ask us to examine more closely the interconnectedness of all things.

Interview by Cal Flyn, Deputy Editor

Being a Beast: Adventures Across the Species Divide by Charles Foster

Being a Beast: Adventures Across the Species Divide
by Charles Foster

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This time last year, you were concerned about the state of nature writing; you said it was becoming a “depressingly petrified and conservative” genre. Are you feeling more optimistic about the cohort of nature books published in 2020?

I am. There have been some really wonderful books this year. I found it hard to whittle down my choices to five. I was moaning last year about a lack of nerve; a refusal to take risks; a rather smug occupation of traditional, cosy categories. And a morbid preoccupation with the  writer’s own navel. If we go anywhere that’s worth going, we should feel vertiginous. If we really meet anyone or anything our preconceptions about them or it are smashed up—often traumatically. There’s much more vertigo and much more smashing in this year’s nature books.

I remember during the first lockdown there was a burst of enthusiasm for birdwatching, which fell during breeding season. Everyone was talking about garden birds all of a sudden, and asking whether it was a bumper year. But ornithologists said no, this is absolutely normal. All that had changed was that people were suddenly paying more attention.

Yes. Our most fundamental malaise—politically, spiritually, in literature and in most other domains is that we’ve forgotten how to pay attention, or are too tired or rushed to pay attention properly. For many, this last year has made it even more difficult than usual to pay attention. But for some, the converse is true. I’ve often heard people saying, ‘Oh, there is wilderness in my suburban back garden!’ Their incarceration has meant that they’ve noted the lichen on the wall for the first time, or noticed just how stately it is. Once you really see anything, it becomes part of you. That’s significant, for we’re reluctant to destroy things that are part of us. Many of us have acknowledged for the first time that the wild isn’t out there. It’s not in an exotic tropical reserve, or at the end of one of David Attenborough’s lenses. It’s in the garden and it’s in you. We’re wild things, living in wild places—even if those wild places happen to be in inner-city London.

Your first book choice, Patrick Barkham’s Wild Child, is very concerned with the possibility of wilderness in the back garden. It feels a timely book, given how many people had to homeschool this year.

Very much so. He examines the role that nature, and the absence of nature, has on children. He focuses on his own three children, and on the children he meets when he works as a volunteer at a ‘wild nursery’, and various ‘forest school’-type projects. He’s plainly a superb father, and on one level the book can be read as a touching account of the business of fatherhood and an illustration of the crucial principle that we learn far, far more from our children than they can ever learn from us.

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If I’d written this book, I wouldn’t have been able to resist the temptation to use my children as a platform from which to broadcast my own assumptions about the importance of the natural world. But what makes Barkham’s book remarkable is that he seems more interested in finding out the truth about the relationship between human children and the natural world than in preaching his own gospel. That’s very unusual. It demands a rare degree of respect both for one’s children and for the truth of the matter.

And yes, as you say, it’s very timely. Everyone is talking about the damage that we do to our children by keeping them locked up. That damage is real. But there’s treatment available in green places. Barkham’s book demonstrates the reparative power of nature.

He writes in Wild Child of how our ‘territory’ as children, the area in which we allow children to roam freely, has shrunk over the past few generations. I have noticed a number of other books attempting to correct this dearth of natural exposure—for example, Robert Macfarlane and Jackie Morris’s The Lost Words and The Lost Spells, which sought to return nature-related words cut from the children’s dictionary to common usage. But is it too late? Can this trend be averted?

I don’t think it’s too late, because human beings are naturally wild animals rather than suburban or inner city animals. We’re not made for suits or central heating. Therefore, however old and however urbanised a person is, they will react immediately and often dramatically to exposure to the wild. I’ve seen that again and again.

Yes, I’ve written a little about the use of nature and the outdoors as a form of ‘wilderness therapy’. A couple of other 2020 nature books, Losing Eden by Lucy Jones and The Natural Health Service: How Nature Can Mend Your Mind by Isabel Hardman, have documented related mental health benefits.

I think one impressive piece of testimony is how little exposure to the wild you need in order to have the effect of protecting against ADHD or depression. And the same applies to physical illness too—not that there’s any real distinction between physical and mental illness. You really don’t need much of a view of trees through your hospital window to reduce significantly the time you’ll take to recover from an operation. We’re highly sensitive to the natural world; even tiny doses of it have a massive effect. All of this is expertly summed up by Patrick Barkham; he offers masterly summaries of the scientific literature.

Thank you. One man who doesn’t need to worry about getting exposure to the natural world is James Rebanks, author of your next book recommendation: English Pastoral. This is his second book about his life as a farmer, and it’s been enormously popular.

It has. It’s a lyrical account of his childhood on the Lake District farm that he’s made famous; an account of how he learned about stockmanship and community and the rhythms of the land from his father and grandfather.

He details his own early intoxication with the idea of ‘progress’, his flirtations with technology and his later disillusion, and he details how he has slowly begun to see there are no winners in the race to industrial farming.

It’s been a massive bestseller, as was his previous book The Shepherd’s Life. And I think it’s very interesting to reflect on why that should be. That’s not to say it’s not a wonderful book in its own right. It certainly is. But I think that the fact of its enormous success is significant.

Not even 2% of the British population work the land. Many British people have no idea what mud is, right? And yet Britons feel themselves, despite that, to be at heart a rustic people. I think they buy the book because they think this is a book about themselves. Even if they work in an air conditioned office, they still regard themselves as farmers.

“Most of us come from nowhere. We belong to nothing except a football supporters’ club or the payroll of a company”

There is, too, a growing uneasiness with the food we shovel into ourselves, and a worried interest in where it comes from. These, I think, are some of the things contributing to the success of this book. But there’s something else, which is that this is a book about the importance of place and the business of belonging.

Most of us come from nowhere. We belong to nothing except a football supporters’ club or the payroll of a company, neither of which could care less about us. We are desperate to learn how to belong; how to be rooted. We know that we are relational animals; that to thrive we have to give in a costly way—whether it’s by baking cakes for the village hall (if it’s been spared by the developers), or by visiting sick neighbours. What Rebanks does is describe agriculture as a holistic system of relationality; a system of existing in and for and by a place. It’s a mode of life characterised by a vibrant reciprocity. Most of us long for that reciprocity; it’s what we’re built for. But few of us experience it. Rebanks does.

There’s a moving passage where he describes how, as he walks around the farm, the distinction between him and the place blurs until he doesn’t know where he ends and the farm begins. The great religions of the world know that when the self begins to blur like that, you’re onto something big; something connected very closely to human thriving and happiness. But that insight is at odds with everything that we are told by our ludicrous political leaders and by our economic masters, who all worship the idea of the atomistic self. Have you ever met an atomistic self? I hope not. You’d want to run a mile. Just think how dreary their narcissistic monologues would be.

But people know, don’t they, that that’s not the way they’re meant to be? They know that the worship of the self is not only deadly for us as individuals, but deadly for our society and our ecosystems and our politics. Rebanks gives a picture of how human life ruled by the rhythm of the seasons and bonded to place might work, and we feel a desperate thirst for it—a half-remembered nostalgia. So I think that’s what he’s tapping into, very brilliantly.

That makes sense.

One of the many things I admire in this book is that, although there is anger and concern, there is no rancour. That’s very impressive. If I were writing about these things, I would never be able to swallow my bile. Rebanks is obviously a wonderful human as well as a splendid writer.

He said once that “the more disconnected you get from nature, the more romantic it becomes. It becomes something false: scenery people want to paint their own aspirations on.” I found that interesting because, of course, he is correct. Yet he himself is a romantic figure—as a sheep farmer with six centuries of ancestral connection to the land, his very identity is symbolic—and that must be part of his appeal.

Yes. We are used to thinking of Romantics as people in dandyish clothes who sit in raptures by mountain streams, thinking beautiful but rather irrelevant thoughts about the natural world and putting them down in rhyming couplets. Rebanks’ writing is properly Romantic, which is a high compliment. The Romantic movement was a reaction against the idea that matter is all there is; that matter is all that matters. It insisted that everything is connected to everything else.

Well, talking of the interconnectedness of all things, let’s turn our attention to Merlin Sheldrake’s Entangled Life, which is a book I’ve seen absolutely everywhere this year.

Merlin is a 32-year-old mycologist. This is his first book. He uses fungi to demonstrate the entangledness of everything in the natural world. For him, no questions are out of bounds. There are no canonical principles which cannot and should not be interrogated. And he approaches it with an effervescent, child-like enthusiasm.

When I say child-like, I’m giving one of the highest possible compliments. I hope that follows from what I was saying about Patrick Barkham’s book. There’s a feeling of wonder about all of Sheldrake’s sentences which would disarm the most hardened cynic. Yet he’s a very serious scientist. Wonder and scholarship need one another desperately.

“This is the true Enlightenment spirit—a spirit of unfettered scepticism”

Excitingly, he demonstrates that our usual categories for filing information about the natural world must be scrapped. Fungi confound all our metaphors. However much we think we have understood, this book will make us realise how much we haven’t. It’s a subversive, samizdat deconstruction of our old, staid, epistemologies. After reading it you’ll think, ‘The world is a massively more exciting and colourful and charismatic place than I thought.’

I know you’re a fan of his father, Rupert Sheldrake, another biologist-writer whose writings you have recommended to us in the past. Do you see similarities in their approach?

I think that Merlin’s and his father’s work are both characterised by a refusal to take anything at all for granted. This is the true Enlightenment spirit—a spirit of unfettered scepticism. It’s an attitude which proceeds from the idea that the world is much bigger and more complex than any of our preconceptions might suggest, and so all available tools—from gas chromatography to iambic hexameters to altered states of consciousness—have to be used to try to understand any of it.

The business of trying to understand how fungal mycelium—or anything—works is an enterprise so audacious that, in order to make any progress, you have to be not only a mycologist, but a physicist, a poet, a musician, a human being, and no doubt lots of other things, too.

I think your next nature book recommendation from 2020 leads quite naturally from this discussion. This is Jeff Kripal’s book The Flip. When you suggested this title, you said that “few people would think of this as a nature book, but it certainly is.” I’m intrigued.

The basic idea of this book is that the usual scientific, materialistic paradigm— which says that there is nothing but matter—is inadequate, and is confounded whenever you look seriously at anything in the world, whether it’s an atom, poem or out-of-body experience.

We know that mind is mattered, in the sense of having some relationship with brain tissue. But there is good reason to suppose, too, that matter is minded. The better we get at looking for consciousness, the more we find it. It seems ubiquitous, and doesn’t just inhabit brains, but also the atoms that compose the desk at which I’m sitting now, and the atoms on the other side of the universe. It is a fundamental characteristic of everything.

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Kripal supports his argument with a mass of evidence from many different domains, including out-of-body experiences. A large proportion of us have had such experiences. I’ll tell you about one of my own. A little while ago, I leapt—I thought swashbucklingly—onto a stage, fell, and dislocated my shoulder. They took me off to hospital and they tried to put it back under nitrous oxide. ‘I’ floated out of ‘my’ body—and ‘I’ looked down on the nurse trying to put it back. ‘I’ could see the bald top of ‘my’ own head, and ‘I’ could see the nurse’s centre parting. ‘My’ mind’s eye, which was describing all this, could see the boundaries of ‘my’ own head. So ‘my’ mind was plainly not restricted by ‘my’ skull. It was in some sense outside the bone-box which it usually thinks of as its home. If it could hover six feet above that skull, what else might it do? Where else might it go? And all the inverted commas in my last paragraph are strange and interesting.

The philosophy writer Jules Evans previously recommended to us Jeff Kripal’s book Authors of the Impossible—in the context of what he called ‘ecstatic experiences’, which sounds a little similar to what you are describing.

Yes. Surprisingly little is really impossible in principle. Should you ever begin to think that this is a drab, workaday world, open any textbook of quantum physics. If one electron has been close to another, they will each affect the spin of the other for ever, however far apart they are, instantaneously. Every bit of matter in the universe was once very, very close to every other bit—at the moment of the Big Bang. And so everything in the universe is intimately related to and continues to affect, instantaneously, everything else in the universe. Everything is one. Individuation is still possible, but has to be accommodated within the overarching fact of one-ness, and most of our cherished divisions are illusory.

The corollaries of that are astounding, aren’t they? On every single level. If we just take the political and the moral, this means I have no reason to boast about my status in relation to any other human being, or any other non-human being, or any other collection of atoms. And think about what it means for the birdwatcher; it means that the woodpecker is resonating with her! It’s impossible to talk about these things without sounding insane. But that’s the sort of thing I was thinking about when I suggested that this was a nature book—because it gives a pretty fundamental explanation of what it means to say, as we blithely and often unreflectively do, that we are part of nature, and nature is part of us. Everything’s bound to everything by an eternally unbreakable knot of agency. And this should impose on everyone a glorious but crushing responsibility to treat everything else right.

One thing about nature writing that I find beguiling is how it can be a very expansive term. Nature writing of the kind that I like to read often draws from philosophy and science, or both. I’ve been very excited about the writing of Peter Godfrey-Smith, who I suppose I think of as nature writing-adjacent, his books Other Minds and Metazoa study cognition in cephalopods and the evolution of consciousness—a topic that has been a focus of philosophy for centuries. Then it became the domain of psychology, neuroscience, and now biology. Panpsychism, as a concept, has been around since Spinoza.

I think panpsychism has been around at least since the advent of behaviourally modern humans!

Nature writing traditionally has, for obvious reasons, tended to take its cue from biology, and biologists have lagged far behind the physicists in their openness to these, frankly, mystical ideas. So I’m excited—and Jeff Kripal is excited—about how the humanities might be affected if writers put their imaginations seriously to work on some of the basic insights of the quantum physicists. In the quantum world, matter is congealed energy. The division between space and time is an illusion. Dark energy constitutes most of the universe. You can go seamlessly from those observations to The Tibetan Book of the Dead and the post-resurrection appearances of Jesus. Partial differential equations are a type of mystical literature. It seems from everything that we’ve just been discussing that the best books on consciousness are actually written by physicists.

So if the physicists have stolen all the good stories, what are non-scientists—including most nature writers—supposed to do? And hasn’t the literary scholarship of the last century made literature redundant? Why should anybody listen respectfully to a discipline, literature, whose central arguments often boil down to the claim that the only truth is that there is no truth at all.

“Partial differential equations are a type of mystical literature”

But maybe there’s a way of rehabilitating literature—and in particular nature writing. The humanities have, at least notionally, had the nature of consciousness as their core subject. Perhaps they’ve got something to add to what the quantum physicists have to say about consciousness. But they’ve got to pull their socks up.

Really interesting nature writing, I ought to say, is very explicitly about the nature of consciousness and the interplay of different loci of consciousness. It’s about the consciousness of the bird, and the way that the consciousness of the bird is affected by the consciousness of the human observer, and vice versa, and about the Mind that seeps out of the hill and into your socks.

A lot of food for thought. Thank you. We have one more book that I’d like us to cover, Helen Macdonald’s new book of essays, Vesper Flights. I think it’s fair to say that it was very highly anticipated after the enormous success of H is for Hawk.

Yes, and it shows very clearly that Helen Macdonald is not a one-book writer. This is a coruscating collection. She does a lot of things. She bemoans the fascist weaponising of English tradition. She speculates on our need to see in bird murmurations shapes that are familiar to us. She fears that modern children are going to learn to regard the constant disappearance of species as the ordinary way of the world. She talks about the hides the bird watchers use—suggesting that far from connecting us with the natural world, they divide us from it and encourage us to see animals and plants as spectacles. And lots more. It’s a wonderful potpourri.

But, as she describes it, the message of this book is that our love of the natural world should not be self-love. We, too, easily see other lives, whether they are human or non-human lives, as mirrors of our own, and that sort of narcissism enrages the elemental gods. So this book is a counter to the others, really. The others have emphasised connectivity. They’ve said that the boundaries between us and the natural world are porous, if not completely non-existent. But Macdonald says, ‘Okay, yes, there’s a connection. But don’t forget that a badger is importantly different from you. You might adore badgers, but don’t go using them as vehicles of self-adoration.’

Macdonald’s academic background is as a historian of ideas. And I think you can sense that depth of knowledge in her writing.

Yes. She is, in many ways, a very philosophical writer. Sometimes an infuriating writer. But she’s always immensely good company. Although she’s tremendously learned, she is also a great lover of the natural world. She says in this book that all her work is about finding ways to recognise and to love the difference between things.

I know what she means, and it’s arrogant to think that I might know better than she does what her work’s about. But I’d have thought it rather better to say that her concern is with the moral and aesthetic difficulty of responding to a world which contains something wonderful like the soaring swift, and something horrible, like a paediatric oncology ward. It’s theodicy. It’s about the problem of whether it’s moral to be able to enjoy a walk in the woods.

Your point on Macdonald’s willingness to embrace that sense of ‘the other’ was part of what made H is for Hawk so haunting, I thought. I remember very strongly a scene in which she watched her goshawk Mabel, and tried to imagine what the bird might be thinking, and all it was, was: ‘kill, kill, kill.’

For Macdonald what makes the natural world so fascinating is its inaccessibility—rather than (as for me), the tantalising possibility of intimate relationship which rests on the physicists’ assertion of oneness. I tend to side with Kripal, and conclude that in exploring ourselves we necessarily explore badgers, stars, and the spin of electrons, and by exploring badgers, stars, or the spin of electrons, we necessarily discover something about ourselves.

Part of our best books of 2020 series.

Interview by Cal Flyn, Deputy Editor

December 28, 2020

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Charles Foster

Charles Foster

Charles Foster is a Fellow of Green Templeton College, University of Oxford. He is a qualified veterinary surgeon and barrister, and teaches medical law and ethics at the University of Oxford. His latest non-academic book Being a Beast was a New York Times Bestseller, long-listed for the Baillie Gifford Prize and the Wainwright Prize, and is the subject of a forthcoming feature film.

Charles Foster

Charles Foster

Charles Foster is a Fellow of Green Templeton College, University of Oxford. He is a qualified veterinary surgeon and barrister, and teaches medical law and ethics at the University of Oxford. His latest non-academic book Being a Beast was a New York Times Bestseller, long-listed for the Baillie Gifford Prize and the Wainwright Prize, and is the subject of a forthcoming feature film.