We’ve had Autumn, followed by Winter. Now, Jim Crumley rolls us into Spring. He could be Ali Smith’s naturalist twin, so close are their titles and timing. Published to coincide with the rising of sap and the chittering of nesting birds, The Nature of Spring is the product of intense observation. Although all of Crumley’s work draws on a long lifetime of experience, the blueprint for this book is early 2018, the year when spring almost forgot to wake up.
Crumley could not have predicted, when he set out on the third part of his quartet, that his garden would soon be covered in 18 inches of snow, ‘precisely 18 inches more than the previous winter’. On previous record, spring was bleeding inexorably into summer, after too-mild winters, as the boundaries between one season and the next grow ever more blurred.
Sadly for a reader who never tires of talk about blizzards and cold, the Beast from the East is given scant attention. Crumley focusses not on this meteorological blip, but on the time it took for the process of rejuvenation to recover and get back on schedule.
The speed with which that Siberian snap was followed by warmth is indicative of Crumley’s unease, as described near the beginning of this volume: ‘a particular sense of disquiet set in early,’ he writes, of watching the seasons for this project. That discomfort arises because of obvious climate alterations, sinister intimations of irreparable harm being done to the wild things among which he has made his life and living.
For a nature writer, Crumley is talkative. Scenes of solitary, stone-like watching are interleaved with discussions of global warming, environmental politics, or simply reflections on his own past. Possibly there is a little too much reminiscence in The Nature of Spring, or maybe I just prefer when he writes of the creatures and landscape before him, like a James Guthrie or Landseer of print.
The main players in Spring are birds, none more dramatic than the sea eagle. Crumley is most compelling when describing the creatures that make a scene come alive: peregrines, buzzards, eagles, and encounters with a bird frequently described on first sight as a ‘door with wings’. The sea eagle was hunted to extinction in Victorian times, but its reintroduction in the 1950s was thwarted because of fulmars protecting their nests, who so ruined a sea eagle’s wings with their projectile bile, it drowned out at sea. Better fortune followed those released here in the 1970s.
Other animals enter and exit the stage, prompting typically memorable images: ‘a badger with built-in crampons’, ‘the full-bore, double-barrelled stare of a roebuck at ten yards’. He is also something of a preacher: ‘If you never thought there could be beauty in a fly, you need only watch a newly hatched horde of mayflies trekking upstream into the afternoon sunlight above the course of a Highland river with a song in its step.’
For me Crumley is at his finest when his pen translates what he sees rather than what he recalls. As he travels chapter by chapter, in our own times and through his past, across Scotland and its islands, and into Northumberland – ‘Islandshire’ – he offers nuggets of history that, for this reader at least, are a distraction from the main event, namely, the tardy arrival of spring.
Spring can, of course, take on a deeper meaning, of which he is all too aware. The sea eagle’s restoration is one example of a renaissance after a Narnian winter, as is that of the beaver. Yet another, for which he is a tireless advocate, is the controversial possible return of the wolf.
This pet subject leads to one of his most plangent passages. Of walking in the ‘heartland tracts of Highland Scotland,’ Crumley writes: I have become aware of an absence, and I put it down to wolves. That sounds finicky, I know, but such landscapes have a way of dislocating time. There is a harder-edged wildness at work there, and the sense of it reaches you almost like a scent, or the sound of it is in your ears like a threnody, for it laments its own incompleteness.’
Allied to this loss, is another. The radical message from The Nature of Spring is not the urgency of climate change, which is no longer news, but the ‘ferociously simple’ notion of restoring the treeline, ‘the upper limit of altitude at which native trees grow naturally’. The effect on ‘nature’s imagination would be limitless’. With that one act, and the cascade that would follow, the wolf – and others – would find a home.
If anyone could persuade me that it is time to welcome the wolf home, it would be Jim Crumley. Linking its arrival to a new abundance of forests turns the notion from a gimmicky dream of ‘rewilding’, to an enriching vision of true, sustaining wildness. Consider this doubter won over.