“At the Water’s Edge”: A book to enjoy and shake us up

British naturalist John Lister-Kaye is one my favorite nature writers and At the Water’s Edge is full of magical and insightful observations that characterized his earlier books: Nature’s Child and Song of the Rolling Earth.

And what observations! A kestrel seizing a slow worm only to end up with a tail in its talons as the slow worm jettisoned its tail and escaped, falling to the floor. A goshawk chasing a wood pigeon and knocking itself out on a fence post. Getting up close and personal with a magnificent red deer stag after meticulously stalking it. The thrill of watching a wildcat. Every chapter is a treasure; every sentence perfectly crafted.

But don’t for one instant think the book is full of romanticized musings. Lister-Kaye is very much a 21st century nature conservationist. He comes down heavily on our society which is “drunk with energy lust,” with “chemical-dependent agricultural systems which expend ten calories of energy to grow and transport to the markets a single calorie of food.” He wonders whether “mankind has lost its way because we are out of touch with the biorhythms that controlled our lives long ago.” In other words, it’s a book to enjoy but also a book to shake you up.

However, I do have a complaint, and this is aimed not at the author but at the publisher. The cover photo on the paperback version is totally wrong. The book is all about wildness, escaping from civilization, the open countryside, freedom. But on the cover is a photo of a cute little otter which looks like it’s been snapped by a child visiting a zoo. And it appears to have string around its front right leg!

at the waters edge

Not only is the photo unsuitable, but it directly contradicts the author’s own writing: “To entice and please our urban majority we are sanitizing, taming and domesticating for popular consumption the last of our most precious wild places throughout the globe and frequently trivializing the experience of the wildlife they sustain.” A simple evocative photo of the loch that features in the book would have been much more suitable.

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