Book review: The Nature of Summer, by Jim Crumley

Somewhere towards the end of this beautiful book – the last in his series about the four seasons, begun in 2016 – Jim Crumley recalls a conversation in an Edinburgh pub with his late friend the painter George Garson. Garson told him that he was often relieved when darkness came, because it was the only thing that could stop him looking – looking at everything, at its shades and colours and details, with the meticulous and obsessive eye of the artist.

Jim Crumley

Crumley does not see himself as an artist; nor, he says, as an obsessional character. Yet it is that same exceptional and intense quality of observation that glows from every page of this book about what he says was once his least favourite season, from its opening invitation to look deep into the texture of a summer Scottish mountainside full of tiny miracles of plant life, to its closing ecstatic encounter with a gleaming kingfisher, somewhere on the great dividing line between Scotland’s Lowlands and Highlands.

Crumley began his writing life as a journalist, but at the end of the 1980s he decided – in the words of his then boss, Edinburgh Evening News editor Ian Nimmo – to “follow his star” and become a writer about the natural world. Thirty books later, Crumley still seems slightly incredulous at his good fortune in finding a life’s work that he loves with such a passion; and to read his writing about the golden eagles of Scotland’s southern Highlands, for example, is to glimpse a relationship with landscape and wildlife so profound – and so hard-won through hours of patient, silent observation – that it sometimes seems as if Crumley himself is about to merge completely into the landscape, a still, watching figure becoming one with the rocks, trees and waters around him.

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In achieving this kind of intense absorption into the natural world, though, Crumley is arguably only expressing the truth that human beings are nothing if not part of nature, and that we can no longer sustain our destructive habit of viewing the natural world as something external to ourselves, to be used and abused. No book about the seasons written over the last half-decade can avoid confronting the rapid acceleration of climate change, most extreme and obvious in Crumley’s beloved northlands. There are two moments of shocked realisation here: one when Crumley walks the empty cliffs near St Abb’s Head in Berwickshire, celebrated until a few years ago as a “Serengeti of sea-birds”; the other when he makes a visit to the Lofoten islands in northern Norway, only to find himself in the middle of last summer’s grotesque Arctic heat-bubble, with temperatures of 34 degrees.

Yet for all Crumley’s well-justified anger and grief at what humankind has done, he still finds an absolute, heart-lifting joy in the richness and resilience of the world around us; even in that strange Arctic heatwave, he finds astonishing beauty in the landscape, and sheer wonder in his encounters with soaring sea-eagles. Occasionally, he repeats thoughts and observations, and re-introduces us to great, already-mentioned characters in Scottish natural history, as if he were still a journalist, writing a weekly column for readers with short memories. Nothing, though, can diminish the sharpness of his eye, the ardour of his writing, and the pure wonder at the natural world that shapes every paragraph. In order to survive – he tells us in his final chapter – humankind has to show that it can “begin to think beyond self”; and for more than 30 years, Crumley has made it his daily discipline to achieve that kind of merging of the self into the whole texture of life on earth, in order to bring us a wisdom that we need now, more than ever before.

The Nature of Summer, by Jim Crumley, Saraband, 385pp, £12.99