A child let loose in nature

The award-winning writer's winter reflection.

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I was standing next to a stranger in a bookshop. Both of us were grinning as we leafed through copies of The Ladybird Book of the Mid-Life Crisis, one of a new series designed to skewer the childhood nostalgia of those of us of a certain age. “Uh, I remember all these pictures,” he said, faintly alarmed. I confessed that I did, too. Later that day I dug out the real thing: my old copy of Ladybird’s What to Look for in Winter, first published in 1959. I also remembered all these pictures: 24 watercolours of hoar frost and rooks under pallid skies, of snowy woods, sheep, jackdaws, tractors, holly bushes, foresters, carthorses; ducks on frozen lakes, a half-ermined stoat slipping past reeds rimed with ice.

In growing up we are exposed to a variety of literary models for interacting with the natural world; books that teach us, overtly or by stealth, what we are supposed to know and think about it, and the tones we should use to speak about it. Small, with card covers, and priced at two shillings and sixpence each, the books in Ladybird’s nature series could easily be stuffed in a pocket or satchel on trips to the local countryside. They were hugely influential and this one – written by the novelist, naturalist and mystic E L Grant Watson, with illustrations by Charles Tunnicliffe – was my favourite. I knew each page of text by heart, delighted in how it explained and elaborated on the winter scene on the opposite page, traced with my fingers where animals, farm machinery and livestock were framed between foreground details of fence lines and foliage and a background of distant spires and sunlit hillsides.

Rereading it was an exercise in nostalgia, but a complicated one. I began to wonder whether anyone makes books like this any more. What to Look for in Winter is a spectacular primer not only in natural history but in aesthetic pleasure, in how to pay attention to the moving patterns of colour, light and shade in a landscape. Unlike a field guide, it encourages you to encounter the natural world as a whole, not merely ticking off its constituent parts. Back then, it taught me to spot things in the landscape, to find out not only what they were but what they were doing, and why.

Even now its tone feels to me the right way to talk about nature: avuncular but never patronising. When I was small I loved this book because it did not talk down to me. Lyrical in places, confiding in others, it was full of technical terms such as “awns”, “shucks” and “spathes”, and I was flattered that the writer assumed I would know what these meant, even if I did not.

Some of it has not worn well. There are no women in the countryside at all and its animals are viewed through a mid-century gender-political lens: “Mrs Sparrow” has a “dreadfully untidy nest”. The lowland rural landscapes it depicts are far from the scruffy pine woods, suburbs and housing estates I knew as a child. This is a book designed to celebrate a particular vision of the English landscape, in which shooting, fox-hunting and – controversially at the time – the increasing mechanisation of farming are a seamless part of the natural order of things.

It was a time, too, when educating children about nature was held to have considerable cultural importance. Books of this kind were designed to build young naturalists with an in-depth knowledge of Britain’s natural and national heritage. Full of assumptions about the correct relationship between children and the natural world, What to Look for in Winter suggests that the world is full of mysteries, such as the mechanism of the germination of mistletoe, which you, the reader, might one day help to solve. And it expects you, too, to interact physically with things outside: shake the branches of ivy so that “drunken insects fall to the ground”; collect fungi that are “nice to take home”; discover that snowberries have a strange softness when you squish them; bite the pungent seeds of cow parsnips, which taste of “earth, and autumn and sunshine, and several other things”.

Far fewer children today are permitted to engage in this form of hands-on nature-appreciation and fewer still are allowed to explore fields and woods on their own, as I once did. Nature tables have disappeared from schools, natural history from the curriculum, and we increasingly assume that expert knowledge about the natural world is the province of professionals.

My nostalgia for this book is partly that it reminds me of a time when amateur natural history wasn’t a discipline in trouble. But it brings a larger, more painful sense of nostalgia, for all the things I can dimly remember from winters long ago: flocks of starlings coiling over London at dusk, lapwings massed thickly in frosted fields; coveys of grey partridges like sun-warmed stones on hillsides. My nostalgia for these things is not the same as that I have for Peter and Jane, orange knitted tank tops, or Morecambe and Wise Christmas specials, because it is not only about me. What to Look for in Winter comes from a time when children were expected to relate sensuously and intellectually to the great profusion of life around us. Read today, it feels like a story about loss, and hope, and love. It cannot help but feel like a piece of winter history.

Helen Macdonald is the author of “H Is for Hawk” (Vintage)

This article appears in the 17 December 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Christmas and New Year special