Monday, January 25, 2021

John Lewis-Stempel - Still Water: The Deep Life of the Pond

There has been an enormous boom in nature writing in the last few years. Visits to mainstream bookshops are now often dominated by shelves groaning under the weight of books on nature, or aspects of nature. No doubt this is in part to do with the environmental crisis which has raised nature back into our gaze again. But it is also a response to the growing alienation of late capitalism. The longer trends of a crisis ridden society fuelling a need for escapism - and what better place to escape to than the natural world. John Lewis-Stempel is one author who has been a key part of this. A farmer as well as a popular historian, he has written several books that have taken key aspects of the (mainly) English landscape and explored them in various ways. 

Still Water is his latest and looks at the life and history of the pond. Ponds play an important role in the landscape. Today they are celebrated less for watering of animals or cart wheels and more for their role in preserving wildlife. Ponds require maintenance - human intervention. Those duck ponds on village commons, or in farmers' field need dredging, clearing and protection. They are also complex eco-systems of mammals, birds, amphibians, fish, insects and plants. A dialectical system of life that is, tragically, diminishing as ponds are lost to development or no longer fit agricultural requirements.

Lewis-Stempel tells us this, but unfortunately he does so in a way that practically removes the pond from wider historical and natural dynamics. We never really get a sense of the ecological systems and their links to wider processes. Instead we see the pond, and its teeming life, merely through the eyes of the observer. It feels inadequate, as though there are chunks of story missing. Lewis-Stempel tells us about individual creatures and plants, but it feels remarkably superficial. They are isolated from wider networks. The author celebrates their lives, their uniqueness but it isn't ecology - its a ramble through the things that Lewis-Stempel wants to tell us about. Nature by anecdote.

The problem is compounded by the writing. The author thrives on the obscure and the knowing reference. It feels a little like a middle-class dinner party where everyone makes asides to the latest Guardian commentary or a particular popular poet. Instead of drawing us in like evocative nature writings of authors like Barry Lopez or Gavin Maxwell I found myself jarred by the scatter-gun approach. At times the author is either taking the piss - or being deliberately obscure. I was bemused by his description of a sky as being "the weird white of boiled fish eye" but repelled by his comment about frogs that "squat on stones, like turd splats". Perhaps this was a clever reference to someone's poetry I thought, but a quick google tells me that Lewis-Stempel is the only writer that seems to have used these similes.

But these turns of phrase aren't the main problem. Rather its the approach to nature which extracts individuals species out of the wider context and sees them only through the eye of the beholder. John Lewis-Stempel understands that landscape (and ponds particularly) are the result of human interaction with the land - but he only talks about it in the present. This history only exists to allow him to talk about what he sees today. It's a decidedly flat nature that left me very disappointed.

Related Reviews

Maxwell - Ring of Bright Water
Slaght - Owls of the Eastern Ice
Tudge - The Secret Life of Birds
Carson - Silent Spring
Carson - Under the Sea Wind

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