Orchard: A Year in England’s Eden
Benedict Macdonald & Nicholas Gates
Here is an exquisite celebration of nature in an ancient English orchard, now a relic from a lost era, and like the best engaging books it creates a yearning, and leaves us puzzling over how we ever let so many of these beautiful places decline.
Enticed by anecdote-rich story telling, we follow two excitable naturalists whose revelations of a year in a rustic old ‘fruit forest’ read like a couple of time-travelling apple scrumping school boys who have stumbled into Eden, in a pre-war farming age. They leap over a forbidden farm gate ‘like bouncing Tiggers’ and romp through an enthralling year, portraying a wild wealth of ‘jumbled magical chaos’.
They create a welcoming and highly readable nature adventure, that opens with an enchanting Tolkien-like rustic map of orchards bejewelled with hop kilns, mazes, copses, swamps, thrush larders and fortresses. We are escorted through history from the original native apple forests of Kazakhstan, bears and horse-strewn trees across steppes of Eurasia, into a modern day time warp within one secret English orchard, never touched by chemicals.
Mixing lyrical nature writing, ecology, heritage, natural history, culture and wonder, they surpass their aims, and joyfully unveil the lost wildlife of a traditional orchard, where it is ‘as if every vanishing song in England had been broadcast at once.’
We are charmed by waxwings and bramblings, chattering starlings and nattering bats, and an ark of animals protected in the mistletoed boughs. We meet tree creepers on Betty Prosser’s furrowed bark, ‘rarer than a Siberian tiger’, a scrum of hedgehogs and cuckoos, feasting badgers, rare lesser spotted woodpeckers drumming-in the sunrise. There are throngs of insects - beetles, butterflies, hornets and honeybees, patrolled by the surgical weaponry of parasitic wasps.
I love the details - the fungal Morse code, the coral-like forests of cobalt slime mould ‘gnawing’ at Old Kingston’s feet.
Their Eden is contrasted powerfully with the ecological deserts of most of today's apple growing, and they make a compelling case for renewed efforts to wild up more of our orchards.
An inspiring read.