Thanks to Craig Swick for this book review. If you would like to write a review of a botanical book for our blog, please get in touch.
Lev Parikian, Light Rains Sometimes Fall: A British Year Through Japan’s 72 Seasons (Elliott & Thompson 2021).
This is a wonderful book. There is so much going on in it that I found it very difficult to write a review. It is not just a nature diary of what the author observes through the year. It is also a mixture of good scientific observations, personal insights and idiosyncratic, often humorous, descriptions of what is happening around him.
At its most basic level the book is about a year spent in South London during the Covid epidemic. In order to have some daily structure the author goes for walks and writes about the nature around him. He talks mostly about birds because that is his major passion, but he also writes about changes in the trees – from budding to flowering to the fall of leaves in the autumn; the flowers that come out at different times; the changes in the insect populations; and what he sees in the other people he meets. All of this is, of course, influenced by the weather; some days he cannot go out and other times there is boggy ground and squishy, slippery leaves. During the year he grows a great deal as a naturalist and comes to many new understandings about himself and nature. His journey is a personal one. He knows the birds well enough to call them “his birds.” He also recognizes that his walks are about the birds but that botanists would see all the different plants. (P.275)
I do not have space to follow him through the year but I want to mention some aspects of the book I found especially interesting. I will start with his use of the calendar. He relies on the Japanese 72-season year, which divides the year into roughly five-day segments. This is an outstanding choice because it gives him a period when he feels he has to go outside and write about something and also makes him attuned to the possibility of changes when the new period starts. This is so much more effective than having a daily diary where not much happens on several days. Sometimes he tries to match the Japanese calendar to what is happening in South London but we need to remember the 72 seasons is a symbolic, poetic journey through the year rather than a literal description of what is going on in any part of Japan.
Every season is a new adventure for him. Sometimes it is serious or sad but, on the whole, he has fun and enjoys himself through the year. There is so much to see and so much to learn. There are always smaller events that bring drama and excitement. These events are what keeps me turning to the next chapter.
One unique aspect that amazes me is his ability to interpret nature through the sounds he hears. I suppose this makes perfect sense because he is an orchestra conductor. He often hears birds before he sees them and teaches us to find birds through the kind of echolocation an owl uses. He says he was able to identify twenty-two different birds in a single location. I would have just said “There are a lot of noisy birds today.” It makes me want to buy a course on identifying birds from their sounds. His enjoyment with sounds extends to his use of language. He tries to “transliterate” bird sounds into English. A wren, for example, goes “Tsib-a-tsab-a-tsoo-diddly-dabble-iddy-woddy-tsipp….” (P.236). I also greatly enjoy the fun he has making up phrases or words. My absolute favorites are using the word “pigeon” as a verb to describe what pigeons do and the world “shruffle” to explain the noise and experience of walking through dry leaves.
His encounters with other people often show his real love of nature and allow his personality to emerge. His love of birds comes out when a flock of pigeons are scared off by a peregrine and he is able to share his enthusiasm with an 11-year-old beginning birder. My favourite encounter though is when he is flat on the ground taking mushroom photographs and he tries to explain what he is doing to a man who goes by walking a dog. I suppose a true naturalist would not feel a need to explain.
There are also times when he relies on amazingly creative explanations. In a lengthy discussion of insects, he explains flies he cannot identify as “Flies—the magnetized kind with poles aligned to your food—cause a mild nuisance ….” (P.162)
Every day the author is able to go outside and wonder what he will see next. He is frequently amazed at how all the parts of nature fit together. He realizes that the goal is not to be able to identify every plant or bird. The goal is to “[B]ecome conversant–sometimes literally—with what’s there. To acknowledge it, to include it in your daily routine, to notice it and say hello to it the way you would with the barman or the postman or the woman on the fruit-and-veg stall. Just a nod and a hello and occasionally a how are you. It’s not too much to ask, surely?” (p327)
The author takes us through an amazing journey through the year.
This is a wonderful book. Read it.
Craig Swick, February 2022
Listen to Lev Parikian talk about his book, in an online talk for the SLBI on Thurs 24 March – see Events page