The Nature of Summer

Jim Crumley

Saraband, £12.99

Review by Susan Swarbrick

JIM Crumley knows a thing or two about nature. As one of Scotland’s most prolific and authoritative voices on the subject – with an impressive 40 books to date – Crumley offers a mesmerising blend of observation and in-depth knowledge about our wild landscapes.

He writes beautifully on sometimes ugly subject matter, never shying away from tackling thorny issues, be it laying bare the catastrophic effects of climate change or sharing his provocative conservation visions (Crumley is a fierce advocate for the reintroduction of wolves to the Highlands).

Since 2016, he has penned a series of thoughtful appreciations on the Scottish seasons, covering first autumn, then winter and spring. The much-awaited final instalment in this quartet – The Nature of Summer – is every bit as compelling and thought-provoking as its predecessors.

Perhaps Crumley saved summer to last because, as the author admits in the book, it was once his least favourite season. Although you would hardly know it from his impassioned, rallying opener that implores the reader to look closer at the minute detail of their surroundings.

He sets the scene atop the Cairngorms plateau, a lofty perch high above the world. But rather than enjoying the majesty of views stretching as far as the eye can see, Crumley is looking at the mountain sorrel beside his left boot. “Summer is the Goddess of Small Things,” he decrees.

What follows is an illuminating insight as he gently peels apart the layers of the plant – its spike of flowers, nut-like fruit, kidney-shaped leaves – and turns his binoculars upside down, using them like a microscope. It serves as a potent reminder that nothing around us should be taken for granted, a message that looms large throughout The Nature of Summer.

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While a keen watcher of nature, Crumley does so with a strict policy to never interfere, blending so unobtrusively with the birds and animals he encounters, it is almost as if he embodies the forests, glens, mountains and water around him, shapeshifting amid the rugged wilds.

He gives short shrift to any form of human interference, disdain palpable as he talks about satellite tracking devices fitted to two young eagles, newly fledged from an eyrie. “We do like to put our clumsy fingerprints all over nature, convinced of our entitlement to know everything about where they go and what they do … the arrogance of our species,” he writes.

Later, Crumley traverses the cliffs of St Abb’s Head in Berwickshire, an area he got to know well in the 1980s while working as a newspaper journalist in Edinburgh. The author recalls the delight of those early visits with the “uplifting choruses of kittiwake voices, and guillemots, razorbills, terns, puffins, with peregrines to keep them all on their toes …”

St Abb’s, he says, has become a byword among ornithologists and coast-path walkers as a place to see seabirds. That is not necessarily a good thing in Crumley’s view.

“A species of walk-this-way-tourism I don’t much care for has thoughtlessly, carelessly branded St Abb’s Head as ‘seabird city’,” he writes, adding that such labels are “not just thoughtless and careless but also dangerous.”

It is a stance borne out as Crumley poses the question: where were the puffins? He relays a jarring statistic: there’s been a 100 per cent decline since 1987 in St Abb’s, “another way of saying that the total number of puffins is none, nil, nothing, zero. Gone.”

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Yet, it is not all doom and gloom. There is an accidental encounter with a kingfisher and a glorious adventure where Crumley listens to grey seals singing on the rocks and watches a gleaming pod of dolphins.

As summer solstice approaches, there is no better book to lose yourself in.