Jim Crumley is rightly regarded as one of Scotland’s finest nature writers, perhaps the foremost in what is now a well-peopled field. In her justly admiring introduction, Kathleen Jamie, no mean nature writer herself, asks “who in the late 1980s would quit a decent day job to become a nature writer?” Not many perhaps, though many have made just as unpromising a switch from salaried employment to a freelance writing career. It’s not so remarkable. What is remarkable is Crumley’s wide-ranging eye, imagination and knowledge.
As the title of what may come to be judged as his masterwork indicates, Crumley takes the reader through the seasons, beginning with autumn, which is his favourite, and he writes evocatively about what in Scotland is so often the most beautiful time of the year. If it seems odd to start with autumn, one might remark that our modern, Christian calendar is out of tune with nature. The Greeks and Romans were wiser, their New Year coinciding with the first shoots of spring.
Like almost all modern nature writers, Crumley loves birds of prey and writes lyrically about them, while having less to say about the small birds and animals they kill. Like others, he is keen to bring wolves back to Scotland; our sheep-rearing ancestors were happy to kill them. Thus the wheel turns. Today all predators are good except of course man.
Crumley’s opinions are rarely remarkable now. They are indeed the common property of nature writers today. There is a new orthodoxy, and if you are at all sceptical, there is no place for you. Crumley’s magic is to be found not in his opinions, however, but in the extraordinary quality of his observation. Read for instance, his encounter with a roebuck, too long to quote here.
The underlying theme of much nature writing today is the certainty of global warming and our responsibility for it. Few people of sense now deny its reality and our contribution to it. In the words of the prophet Isaiah, “thou has multiplied the nation and not increased the joy”, though of course as with all such developments many do well out of it. Nature itself is of course destructive and was so long before man exerted much influence on the planet. Think of earthquakes and erupting volcanos. Crumley is far too knowledgeable and intelligent not to recognize the existence of the mini ice-age which followed the mediaeval warm period, and lasted from the 16th to the late 19th century. It is only 50 or so years since the front page of The Times threatened us with a new Ice Age.
Nature is marvellous, beautiful, but not necessarily benign. Some of us love nature that is well-managed: the parks and woodlands of a country house, beef cattle knee-deep in grass, a field of barley on a summer evening, suburban gardens – all such things have their beauty. Or, as one French philosopher said, “the garden that I love has good vegetables in it”. Man, even urban man, is not always an enemy of nature, and nature itself is “red in tooth and claw”.
So I, like countless others, don’t buy everything that even the best nature writers tell us. On the other hand, a writer of Crumley’s remarkable qualities is hard to argue with. He is very persuasive and opens our eyes to beauties we haven’t known and to mysteries we haven’t even considered. We may not agree that we should all welcome the re-introduction of wolves to the Scottish countryside – sheep-farmers have enough trouble with errant dogs – but Crumley writes so glowingly about them that I am almost persuaded. He is a marvellous descriptive writer. Read, for example, his “Winter Diary” and the passage which begins “Snow was promised by breakfast” and includes a splendid verbal snapshot of “a mute swan cob from hell”, encountered on Airthrey Loch on the University of Stirling campus. This is a book to read through the year.
Seasons of Storm and Wonder, by Jim Crumley, Saraband, 438pp, £25