The Nature of Spring by Jim Crumley
Reviewed by Nigel Ward
Word Count 490
Saraband, 2019, 240pp
Woodcocks burst from the undergrowth, “broad and brown and blurred.” Sunlight catches an eagle’s wings “like hung sheets of dark silk.” An agile badger is dubbed “mountaineer.” The Nature of Spring, captures such moments as they escape winter’s clutches, emerging into new life.
Nature writing has recently blossomed, with Helen Macdonald, Robert Macfarlane and their ilk, yet journalist, author and poet, Jim Crumley has been ever-present over three decades. Recent titles revelled in autumn and survived winter: now his seasonal series greets the spring, but not a normal one. Following the infamous “Beast from the East” in 2018, observations and explorations on re-wilding and conservation are set in what he labels “the backward spring.”
In his familiar territory of Glen Finglas, or on Hebridean islands, Crumley’s approach to writing declares itself: he lingers, he pauses, he decides to “settle for a while.” Sitting and watching, knowing the commonplace intimately, he detects then describes the subtlest change. An intimate encounter with a roebuck unravels slowly, each sense appreciated as it comes to the fore. His writing is unhurried, not ponderous; it lingers, but doesn’t loiter. His readers can savour the moment, developing their own image.
Occasionally, Crumley empathises with Cezanne who felt he lacked range on his palate to adequately portray nature. By turn, Crumley claims to wrestle with a mastery of language. But Crumley is modest. As Cezanne didn’t annotate his paintings, Crumley needs no illustrations: his words alone suffice. He hears throaty notes of waterfall voices; sees melting hillside snow like a “neatly stitched seam up the shadow-side of the dyke.” An iconic mountain is a “lethargic old stag that had just tholed one winter too many.”
However, The Nature of Spring is not purely descriptive. Concerns recur, but not with a haranguing polemic. Crumley celebrates the reintroduction of sea eagles and courts controversy by championing the same for wolves and beavers. He advocates restoring Highland treelines and bemoans the efforts of officialdom. He argues that 2018’s “backward spring” was symptomatic of climate chaos. Observing shrinking glaciers and the delayed flowering of local bluebells, he pleads with readers to listen to what the environment is saying. “Let wildlife manage wildlife.”
Yet readers might risk feeling guilty about their own shortcomings. Can we distinguish between pine-martens and dog-stoats, identify a northern dipper, or tell apart the bark of aspen and alder before leaves come into bud? So, he encourages us to read.
This book is for those who luxuriate in a writer conveying the intimacy of his surroundings. It is for those seeking to understand how returning wolves would restore what has been lost. And, given comments about his notebooks and methods, it is a book for writers as he exhorts us to “write in the very now where you find yourself.”
Unlike multi-volume fiction sagas, readers can start Crumley’s The Nature of… series at any title or season. Summer is coming, on Spring’s evidence it’s worth anticipating.