Monday, April 27, 2015

A Buzz In The Meadow

A Buzz In The Meadow:
The Natural History of a French Farm
By Dave Goulson
Published in the USA by Picador, April 28th, 2015

 The author is a conservationist and scientist (currently Professor of Biological Science at Stirling University) who has bought a tumbledown, derelict farm in the Charente region of rural France which he turns into a wildlife sanctuary. He does not intend it to be a book about an eye-catching conservation species which will capture the public imagination, but rather an in-depth look at the remarkable, beautiful yet often unnoticed nature all around us: flies, butterflies, wasps, newts, bees, deathwatch beetles and the like - which he sees in his everyday life around the farmhouse and its land.

It is well-written indeed, at times almost lyrically poetical, yet can veer very sharply into a fairly detached scientific mode.  Every single chapter is remarkably engaging given it is dealing with quite ordinary creatures; there is an absolutely fascinating chapter about houseflies with a lot of detail about  how both battery hen farms and refuse sites need to be managed carefully to avoid enormous infestations of houseflies engulfing the surrounding areas. Flies are ghastly nuisances and the cause of all sorts of unpleasant bacterial contamination, but their role in the world's ecology is vitally important. His work in this field was very interesting indeed, and most enlightening. I will still swear when flies get in the house, but at least I now have  a much fuller appreciation of the reasons for their continued existence.

Was the book worth reading?
Without hesitation, I would say most definitely yes. Even if you only read the quite heartbreaking chapter on how modern agriculture is affecting our bee populations, this book is well worth reading and well worth the money.

 Do I agree with everything he writes or does?
No. Don't start me ranting about the poor newts, the destruction of whose habitat on his farm he inadvertently engineered and spent an inordinate amount of time  trying to rectify. For someone devoted to preserving the ecological balance of his farm, he seemed surprisingly laid-back by the problem he created for the newts, yet he was utterly enraged by a local hunter shooting a red-legged partridge on his land. I would argue that to shoot one bird in no way is equivalent to destroying an entire local habitat of a species, let alone taking several years to restore that habitat. It may take many more years before the newts return to his farm, if indeed they ever do.

Relating his experiences as PhD student studying Meadow Brown butterflies, he recounts wanting to study the mating process in greater detail which necessitated finding copulating butterflies and immersing them in liquid nitrogen to freeze them and then study the engaged genitalia under a microscope, as well as killing then partially liquefying butterflies in order the study their genitalia under a microscope. Having only this  morning rejoiced at seeing an Orange Tip butterfly flying exuberantly in my area for the first time in several years, I would be sad to think that someone would one day be chasing after it to kill it in order to study in closer detail. I know scientific knowledge is not always gained easily or without sacrifice, but even so.....I would prefer to see the butterflies in their natural habitat than their genitalia painstakingly dissected out and photographed for the scientific record.

I found it to be factually interesting and on the whole, very enjoyable.  It might well challenge your ideas and expectations about ecology, wildlife, the scientific method and how humanity is interacting with the other denizens of our planet, but it will definitely open your eyes to the lives of some of the almost invisible yet quite remarkable creatures that surround us. Do bees know their left from their right? Read this book and find out!

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GretchenJoanna said...

What a good review - it gives a good idea of what one can expect from the book and also your personal engagement with it.

Elizabeth @ The Garden Window said...

Thank you, GretchenJoanna! It was a book which both fascinated and enraged me, but I am glad I did read it.