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From Dublin Bay to a tapestry of light: nature books for Christmas

Another Life: Michael Viney’s pick of the wildlife writing and photography of 2017

Dublin Bay’s mudflats: long-billed waders probe for marine food in sediments enriched over centuries with the city’s human waste. Illustration: Michael Viney

If watching birds were my only joy in life, I should have stayed in Dublin. Choughs and ravens and even whooper swans offer modest choice compared with the gloriously variable avian parade of the capital.

The swifts may have gone from their summer sky and terns flown from Sandymount Strand, but now come the great migrant waterbird flocks of the bay, their abundance and ease of acquaintance still rare among the world’s capitals.

Among new books for Christmas, Dublin Bay: Nature and History (Collins Press, €25) must take the lead for any citizen tuned to the ecosystem of the city and its ocean fringe. Out on the mudflats, long-billed waders probe for marine food in sediments enriched over centuries with Dublin’s human waste. Brent geese from the Arctic arrive to exhaust what seagrass remains on the shore, then adjourn for nourishment to man-made parks and football fields.

The daunting scope of the book is served by three authors: the ecologist Richard Nairn, the biologist David Jeffrey and the geographer and planner Rob Goodbody, all well into current research and much concerned for the future of Dublin’s biosphere.

A new study, they relate, now deepens the risks from rising sea level and storm surges of 3m or more. Even Europe’s widely accepted 1m rise could, it seems, threaten some 350sq km of Irish cities. Along with flooded streets and houses, the new climate regime will bring waves to the hard edge of built Dublin, swamping the bay’s centuries-old natural habitats and drowning the orchids of Bull Island.

Zoë Devlin has already brought botany and the simple love of flowers to the widest public through her books, skilled photography and deservedly popular website

Blooming Marvellous: A Wildflower Hunter’s Year (Collins Press, €17) has one blooming marvellous author. Zoë Devlin has already brought botany and the simple love of flowers to the widest public through her books, skilled photography and a deservedly popular website (wildflowersofireland.net). Devlin’s passion for seeking out rare or overlooked species in new habitats made her “distinguished recorder of the year” for the National Biodiversity Data Centre in 2016.

This new book, rich in dazzlingly good plant portraits, weaves a story of her life and Irish travels with a month-by-month chronicle of current bloom – and of birds, butterflies and mammals met along the way.

Much visual pleasure is also on offer in Tapestry of Light (Artisan House, €25), a book of superb bogland photographs presented in large format by a new and ambitious Connemara publisher based in Letterfrack, Co Galway. It shows the work of Tina Claffey, now living in Birr, Co Offaly, and accurately described as a photographic artist.

Many of Claffey’s images are revelations of peatland plants and wildlife (much of it minuscule). Some even offer what the Birr ecologist John Feehan calls, in his foreword, “a meaning deeper than the material surface of things”.

Two other new books would suit the more reflective days after Christmas.

Michael Longley writes as compellingly in prose as in verse, and Sidelines (Enitharmon Press, £30) is a polished fistful of his writings from 1962 to 2015, from reviews of poetry and paintings to lectures he delivered in Dublin as Ireland professor of poetry. Among these candid, diverting and finely crafted pieces is the story of Longley’s dealings with the west, which began early, in Co Donegal, and have included, as some readers of this column will know, his long love affair with my coastal parish in Co Mayo.

A third of his poems are set here, and the lectures and reviews are rich in quotation, including many fellow poets of the western landscape, among them Derek Mahon, Seamus Heaney, Richard Murphy, Paul Durcan and Louis MacNeice. They further the book’s deeply engaging portrait of Longley, and of friends who have shared his affection for the wild.

Compared with the English tradition exemplified in John Clare, Longley suggests, “Irish nature poetry has only recently got under way”. His half-century of prose sets a brilliant mirror to its myriad forms and emotions.

Few of Chris Arthur’s essays have ever been simple ‘nature writing’: the landscape and wildlife in Ulster serve as grist to a formidable intellectual mill

Another lifelong writer, Chris Arthur, has persisted, with wide critical success, in a deeply old-fashioned form of words: the essay. Arthur was once warden of a nature reserve on the shores of Lough Neagh, and his early life in Co Antrim still animates him as a teacher of creative writing at Scottish universities.

Few of his essays have ever been simple “nature writing”: the landscape and wildlife in Ulster serve as grist to a formidable intellectual mill. Reading Life (Negative Capability Press, £13.95), his sixth book, extends a seductive flow of speculation and connection, often with his hero and exemplar, Michel de Montaigne.

One essay, for example, sparked by a blood-red puddle of fallen fuchsia blossom, tells all one could ever wish to know about the plant. But it also considers how a youthful dalliance in a cottage on Horn Head brought home the impact of flowers on human life.