This is one of the first nature books of the Covid-19 pandemic and it will be surprising if it does not turn out to be one of the best. It’s the summer of 2020, and as England lurches in and out of lockdown James Aldred is in the deeps of his beloved New Forest, filming a goshawk nest.
This is a thoughtful, clear-sighted, often beautiful and sometimes revelatory book. Though it comes from a different place and time, in its ethos it very strongly recalls The Great Soul of Siberia, Sooyong Park’s stunning 2015 account of filming Amur tigers in Siberia. A notable feature of both books is that neither Park nor Aldred has very much to say about wildlife filmmaking, about the images they capture, the footage they go home with. Instead, photography is presented almost exclusively as another way of seeing – a more attentive, intense, undeviating form of observing wild things, with the film (there must be days of it) barely more than a by-product.
Both authors work from a position of profound familiarity with the landscapes in which they work, and in ordinary times Goshawk Summer might have been, like Park’s book, a fascinating study of a closely-seen wild habitat and an observer fixated by a charismatic predator (goshawks – elusive, ferocious, mercurial, powerful – possess a rare ability to bewitch naturalists and nature writers). But what characterises this book above all else is disruption: as the tides of humanity withdraw from and then, with the relaxation of lockdown laws, rush back into the New Forest, hiking and biking, picnicking and dog-walking, Aldred has again and again to take stock of a well-loved landscape become unfamiliar. ‘The roads are carnage,’ he writes, when lockdown lifts in late May. ‘I’ve never seen the forest like it… What I’m witnessing in this post-lockdown release is an inundation that puts me on edge and makes me nervous for reasons I don’t fully understand.’
Going about his work, Aldred encounters recklessness, selfishness, suspicion, anxiety, even anger – but he is never not generous, even when he cuts loose at the odd stupid dog-owner, and seldom fails to consider the needs and fears of people as well as those of the birds and mammals of the forest (and, of course, of the forest itself, which ‘is under more pressure now than it has even been during its thousand-year history’). He is, naturally enough, on the side of the wild and those who love it, and takes some pleasure in the increased quiet, the easing of the human clamp on the land, but his thoughtfulness is very welcome in the present climate (certain other writers on nature have been less cautious in embracing the joys of locked-down landscapes, and more: Paul Kingsnorth called the pandemic a ‘delicious little sign from God’, 5 million-plus deaths and all).
Aldred writes wonderfully about goshawks. Perhaps it’s easier to maintain a degree of equanimity about the excesses and idiocies of humankind when you have fallen in love with the most brutal killer in our islands’ ecosystem. He is an extremely skilled and keen-eyed ornithologist, and the details of plumage, nestmaking, hunting and chick-rearing are compelling on their own terms, but this wouldn’t be a goshawk book without a little dark rapture, and Aldred obliges, marvelling at the ‘brooding power’ of the female and going head-over-heels for the ‘restless wild beauty’ of her mate: ‘There’s something shadowy, even blurred, that suggests transience, as if he dwells on the wavering edge of visible light. As if he doesn’t belong to this world and might evaporate at any moment.’ In larger doses this would perhaps grow wearisome – but we are soon back to crisp delineations of feather and flight, and patient logbook chronicles of comings and goings at the nest.
In a remarkable passage, Aldred watches a parent bird brings its chicks the decapitated head of a week-old robin: ‘The goshawk – suddenly enormous, cold and strangely mechanical – grips it by the end of its lifeless beak… It’s a pitiful sight made all the more poignant from knowing that the chick would have instinctively reached up to beg for food as the hawk’s shadow fell across it… The rest of the robin’s soft blue body lies to one side, attracting flies. It’s sometimes hard to see the beauty in nature.’
The degree of detail – the begging chick, in particular – feels almost gratuitous, almost cruel. But this is what it is to look with a clear eye on the doings of wild things. Aldred sees profound beauty in the goshawk, anyway, and elsewhere in the hard lives of curlews, foxes, lapwings and deer, and, through him, so too do we.