What is this book about? Ostensibly about maintaining a wildlife area, actually about so much more. Reading anything written by Simon Barnes is a delight, (I can even enjoy reading about sport when he’s written the analysis), and this book could have been called A Box of Delights if John Masefield hadn’t got there first. Not that I wholly agree with everything Barnes asserts, but his contentions are expressed so cogently that they resonate in my head, and I find myself re-assembling my own point of view hours later, when I’m walking the dog.
Simon Barnes and his wife own an area of marshland, where they attempt to encourage indigenous wildlife. This does not mean the land can be neglected – priorities must be decided and the land managed, to maintain a desired habitat. Best intentions do not always produce optimum results, Barnes quotes Stephen Dedalus (Ulysses) to describe errors as portals of discovery, and relates his own passages through such breaches in expectation. He accepts that their area of wild marshland is not important – but at the same time asserts it is essential, in the same way, I think, that an individual carelessly disposing of a plastic wrapper (say) is unimportant, but that the survival of the planet depends on most individuals choosing to consider what to do with such waste. Areas such as the Barnes’ marshland provide essential oases for both resident and migratory wildlife, so much of their natural habitat has been destroyed or is threatened.
The book is filled with what might be called ‘nature observations’ – of birdlife (above all of birdlife, Barnes is a passionate birder), of mammals, insects, reptiles, plants; of their inter-relations, of their behaviour, all suffused with Simon Barnes’s appreciation of and wonder at what he sees and hears. An appreciation and wonder which I feel privileged to share. He also speaks of the privilege of trust, when a wild animal’s flight distance is reduced because it no longer finds you so threatening, or a domesticated animal believes it won’t be hurt. Barnes is at pains to insist that the delight given to us by wild creatures is not the reason they should be preserved, he reminds us that all living species survive through an interwoven web of mutual dependence, the loss of any reduces the quality of life for all. But that does not stop us being able to rejoice with him at the sight of a flight of swallows, or the sound of a mistle thrush.
Interwoven with natural history, On the Marsh contains incidents of the Barnes’s family life. Eddie Barnes has Down’s Syndrome, Simon Barnes describes how Eddie learns about and reacts to the creatures that they see, and reflects on how his own perceptions consequentially alter. Eddie’s poems give us the same opportunity. Simon Barnes has the ability to make the reader appreciate the pathos of vulnerability (of an individual, a species, a habitat) without becoming over sentimental, or reducing the vulnerable to being pathetic.
What else is in this book? Quotations and references: quotations from books, poetry, films, musicals; references to paintings, passages of music. Quotations and references that I recognise, that I feel I ought to recognise, that make me want to read a book or watch a film I’ve never heard of, that encourage me to go back to a book I found too difficult – and these references both enrich Simon Barnes’s book, and give me another view of the work he refers to.
I wasn’t sure about the Tweets, when I saw them interspersed throughout the book. But when I read them – apt, witty, clever and amusing – I forgot to find them annoying. I instantly appreciated the illustrations at the start of each chapter: they are by Cindy Lee Wright, who is married to Simon Barnes, and they are wonderful. I’ve read the book twice now, I have a list of telling phrases, comments I agree with, and statements with which I differ. Only once did I think that a phrase was careless: Simon Barnes wrote that Victorians disliked Darwin’s theory of evolution because it stated that species-defining decisions were made by females. All Victorians? Florence Nightingale and George Eliot for example? Can he possibly only mean male Victorians? But that’s a small cavel, one statement in a trove of thought-provoking, sympathy-generating description and observation.
“If you love anything that lives then you will have sadness.” “Travelling fills us with desperate contradictions.” Poetry may be the best words in the best order, but Barnes’s prose produces aphorisms that are so succinct that whether they chime with my own feelings or challenge them, they echo in my mind after the book has been closed and shared.
Simon Barnes tells us that he resolved to write this book to tell us about, “gorillas, spitting cobras, … (a list of other creatures) … and bonking beetles.” On the Marsh does that – and a whole lot else besides.