Tag Archives: book

The Feast of Samhain and Wildflowers in Autumn

The Thursday before last (28 October) Zoe Devlin had her latest book launch and I was invited along to Hodges Figgis on Dawson Street in Dublin for the wonderful event. Colin Stafford-Johnson, the globe-trotting Irish BBC wildlife cameraman and film-maker opened the proceedings, and I was also fortunate enough too to meet Richard Nairn who has published many books about Irish wildlife. And here are all three of them:

From left to right: Richard Nairn, Colin Stafford-Johnson and Zoe Devlin.

Personally I have found Zoe’s book ( Blooming Marvellous – A Wildflower Hunter’s Year) is making me pay much more attention to flowers in autumn than I ever would have normally. And I’ve found some very beautiful flowers are still blooming, such as this tiny and magnificent Ivy-leaved Toadflax (Cymalaria muralis) which lives in rocky places, including on footpaths, where I found this one:

   Tuesday was Halloween, the eve of All Hallows, aka All Saints Day, and Halloween is also the ancient feast of Samhain. According to Irish myth and legend an evil spirit, a sort of serpentine creature, was unleashed on the feast, and the ancient Irish would light bonfires and make loud noises in an attempt to scare the creature away. It was eventually done away with by the heroic Finn MacCumhail (or McCool if you prefer). As with many ancient feasts and religious rituals, Samhain refused to disappear and to this day bonfires are lit and loud noises are created (using fireworks) to scare away the monster and all other evil beings from dark places who might walk the land in the dark half of the year. Because of Christianity Ireland has attempted to ignore Samhain, which has absolutely no effect on it, and as a result most of October is filled with the noise of fireworks and the building of illegal bonfires. If an attempt was made to engage with the feast, rather than trying to subdue it,  much less anti-social behaviour and illegal bonfire-related activity would occur, as there would be an outlet for the activities and a point of focus. It’s part of Irish culture, from very ancient, pre-Christian times, and it seems this ritual has no intention of coming to an end, being hardwired into the Irish psyche. Let us not forget that Samhain is the Gaelic name for the month of November. But it is a very frightening time of year for animals, both domestic and wild. And for many people too. However, it is over for another year.


Blooming Marvellous this September

It’s hard not to feel sad in September as another summer draws to a close. Children are looking forward to Halloween and Christmas coming after it, but adults often see time slipping away. It never seems long since last September, yet here we are again. But I found something really incredible which will absolutely lift your spirits if you feel the sort of poignancy I do, and that something is a beautiful new book by the botanist Zoe Devlin entitled Blooming Marvellous: A Wildflower Hunter’s Year. It will change your perspective on September, and the year itself.

I can honestly say there is only one book I have ever come across which is like it in any way, and that is the legendary naturalist Gerald Durrell’s The Amateur Naturalist which can best be described as a manual and interactive adventure story rolled into one. These are the sort of books you don’t want an electronic version of, because they are beautiful things in themselves, a combination of art and reading which is truly exhilarating. Blooming Marvellous recounts episodes in the author’s life while inviting you to have your own adventure with the aid of the book.

It’s divided into chapters which deal with each month. Zoe suggests you read the chapter of the month you’re in right now, and immediately you are seeing what she sees and not only that, but you are able to find things she tells you about which you never even realised were there in front of your eyes, by a hedgerow or in your garden. I took mine out into the garden and suddenly I was in the book, and just look at this and you’ll see what I mean:

   As you can see by the page shown from Blooming Marvellous it’s not just about wildflowers, but also about the wildlife which supports them, and depends on them. This is not a botanical manual, but a true-life adventure story comprising anecdotes and a field guide combined. And it’s rugged too, with a rock hard cover and a beautifully stitched binding of heavy, tough, glossy pages, but it is the weight of wisdom. This is a rugged book you can carry in your rucksack, and the writing is fantastic and elegant and absolutely draws you in to the adventures:

“Wordsworth had a way with words that many have envied. In 1798, on the banks of the River Wye, that self-proclaimed ‘worshipper of nature’ wrote ‘Nature never did betray the heart that loved her’. Long before I ever knew those words, my less eloquent maxim was ‘Nature never, ever lets you down’.”

And those are just the opening lines! The rest of the book reads as easily, and there are sad bits, and thought-provoking tales too,  which sweeten the knowledge you are unwittingly taking in with them. Remarkably, all of the adventures Zoe describes in this book occurred in Ireland. Even more alluringly Zoe has included recipes for cooking some of the fruits and wildflowers you encounter, which adds a whole new dimension to this book and interracting with her adventures. For example, there is a really nice recipe for blackberry tart, which is great considering how many blackberries there are on the hedgerows this year:

Before Zoe had published her first book she appeared in a photo on this blog when I met her and her ever reliable sidekick and husband, Pete, out on one of their adventures (as far as I’m aware this is her third book for the Collins Press – or are there more?). So you might think I’m biased, especially if you read pages 186-187. This very original masterpiece is, I promise you, different from anything you have seen before, with photos and text by the author, and I think Gerald Durrell would definitely love it.

If I am ever unfortunate enough to find myself lined up in front of a firing squad I’m going to make sure this book is in my breast pocket, because, although it’s not gigantic, I feel pretty certain, in addition to its many other virtues, it can stop bullets.

If you’re too lazy to go to the bookshop, or don’t live in Ireland, or fear catching one of those horrible September flus or colds, you can buy Blooming Marvellous from Amazon right now and have it delivered to your door.

Two Brilliant Books for Summer Outdoor Adventures

Now that we’re in late July many people will be heading out into the countryside on long holidays, and if you have an interest in the countryside and natural world seriously consider getting these books. Firstly, the superb The Wildflowers of Ireland: A Field Guide by Zoe Devlin, which was the second of The Collins Press new style of rugged, pocket-sized field guides (the first being The Birds of Ireland by Jim Wilson and photographer Mark Carmody).

A beautiful pocket-sized book which you can currently find in almost any bookshop and on the NHBS website.
A beautiful pocket-sized book which you can currently find in almost any bookshop and on the NHBS website.

What makes this book especially interesting is that all of the photographs were taken by the author (I actually first met her on a photographic expedition to Wicklow with her husband) and the drawings in it are by her husband and intrepid sidekick, Pete. It’s an extremely easy-to-use guide with the plants arranged not by family but by the colours of the flowers, which makes navigating this guide a truly wonderful experience.

Putting the book to work. To tops of the pages are colour-marked so that you can instantly arrive in the right section. A brilliant design.
Putting the book to work. To tops of the pages are colour-marked so that you can instantly arrive in the right section. A brilliant design.

And, in an important break from convention, this rugged book is only €14.99 ! It’s worth every penny.  But also you don’t feel afraid to carry it, because if worst comes to worst it’s not too expensive to replace, and this is what makes a real field guide. Considering the amount of travel and field outings which were involved getting the excellent photos of these plants, the story behind the book must be a very exciting one.

But the Collins Press has also brought out another incredible field guide, in a slightly different style, with a slightly different format, but equally badly-needed for nature lovers visiting Ireland – Insects of Ireland: An Illustrated Introduction To Ireland’s Common Insect Groups by Stephen McCormack and Eugenie Regan, illustrated by Chris Shields.

A beautiful and distinctive cover showcasing the incredibly detailed illustrations inside.
A beautiful and distinctive cover showcasing the incredibly detailed illustrations inside.

Don’t let the subtitle scare you, this is an extremely user-friendly book and designed to help the user identify the common insects he or she is most likely to notice. Of the two authors I know Eugenie Regan from the National Biodiversity Data Centre’s Butterfly Monitoring Scheme, which kicked off in 2007. Eugenie was a regular on TV and the radio, but has since moved on to other conservation projects.

Although this book is not designed to fit neatly into the pocket, the wider format allows for a level of detail which in some areas is beyond that of any field guide I’ve ever seen. Chris Shields illustrations are absolutely incredible throughout, although I must especially praise the amazing section on ladybirds which features detailed pictures of the adult and each of the very distinctive larva of each of the species known in Ireland (19 altogether). This section of the book alone would have been enough to encourage me to buy it.

Outstanding illustrations and an excellent distribution map for each species. Need I say more?
Outstanding illustrations and an excellent distribution map for each species. Need I say more?

However, it also draws attention to the fact that few of the caterpillars in the butterfly section are illustrated, which should be considered for subsequent editions. But considering this book is €14.99 and not designed to be exhaustive, it packs quite a punch, and should whet the appetite of anybody with the remotest interest in insects to learn more about them. I must applaud everyone involved in its production.