My rating: 8/10. Occasionally a tiny bit stilted as the author tries hard to keep up his literary momentum, but for the most part the prose flows along just fine. An appealing glimpse into one man’s life, and into the natural history of his personal world.
I spent some days in the Vancouver area earlier this week, and though my free time was limited I did manage to visit several used book stores – used bookstores? used-book stores? – for some reason this does not look right this morning! I am still a bit groggy from sleep, and this is very much a stolen hour at the start of what promises to be a very busy day… Anyway, on the holiday Monday (B.C. Day) evening, when most of the interesting small shops were closed up tight, I nipped into the Langley Value Village to browse their large book section, and, casting about for that elusive 5th book – the “freebie” – this one just sort of slid off the shelf at me in a shyly appealing “Hey, look at me” sort of way. From the title I was thinking – “Hmmm, probably British, another one of those made-for-tourists, Edwardian Lady take-offs, get ready to put it back…” so imagine my delight in finding that it was instead a very appropriate British Columbia book, written about the very region I was visiting.
Amateur naturalist Philip Croft kept a diary of his regular daily walks through his West Vancouver neighbourhood, through a section of forest and down to the beach. Blessed with a keenly observational eye, an artistic hand for illustration, and a gentle sense of humour, Mr. Croft’s year as recorded in this handsome book is very readable indeed. I have visited the coastal areas of B.C. enough to be generally familiar with the setting, but I have often been curious as to some of the interesting plants, insects and seashore creatures unfamiliar to me as a native of the very different, dryland fir zone interior of the province. I found myself browsing through the book in my next few evenings in my hotel room, during breaks from my delighted absorption in The Benefactress by Elizabeth von Arnim.
From the Preface:
I am an inveterate pedestrian. I walk daily for pleasure, exercise and control of the waistline. But mostly for pleasure… I like to walk alone: I prefer to be a quiet pedestrian, to walk and think, not walk and converse. In this respect my hour afoot is apt to be the most useful and productive hour of my day, for it is a time in which I am able, to a measured footfall, to think many things through uninterruptedly, to a logical or practical conclusion… It is my time for meditation and reflection…
…It is not necessary to travel to the out of the way wilderness areas of our province to be confronted by the year-long pageant of natural events in the life cycles of common plants, insects, birds and animals. It is surprising how many species inhabit roadside ditches, patches of woodland, vacant lots, railway embankments and cuttings and similar waste places throughout our area. By following the same limited selection of routes day after day, week in and week out throughout the year, one is enabled to note every phase in the development of wild plants as they spring, grow, flower, seed and make their appearance; when the birds that feed on the insects appear and when they congregate for their annual migrations… a never-ending source of wonder and pleasure…
Something that never ceases to please me is the abundance of natural life surviving and thriving in pockets of our crowded cities; as a dedicated country-dweller who enjoys occasional immersion in city life, I always give silent homage to the urban dandelions growing through cracks in the sidewalk, the fireweed colonizing the sagging roofs and windowsills of derelict buildings, the small birds opportunistically gleaning the road-killed insects from the grills of parkaded cars. And though I view the rural areas as my natural habitat, I have also lived in towns and cities; long enough to appreciate what Mr. Croft is speaking about; that nature surrounds us and goes about its inevitable business quietly and inexorably; if we pause for a moment now and then we can get much joy and encouragement from the steady adaptation of all sorts of organisms in our concrete-filled urban worlds.
This quick trip I noticed the ripening masses of blackberries, the last few foxglove flowers on their impossibly long, seedpod-lined stems, and the forests of Himalayan impatiens and buddleia along the roadsides. Parked in a busy industrial area, waiting for my daughter to emerge from a cavernous, ex-warehouse dance studio, I noticed several small brown rabbits lolloping among the blackberry vines at the edge of the parking lot. A large transport truck pulled up; the driver emerged holding a small plastic container and, without hesitating a moment, went bravely into the thorny thicket and started to pluck the berries; one in the mouth, one in the tub… I chuckled to myself and mentally went through my own belongings; sadly I had no suitable container or I might have joined him!
What joy to then read about Philip Croft’s August ode to walking in blackberry time, taking along a container to fill on the return trip to be subsequently made into a delectable pie, and his investigations of bumblebees pollinating the ubiquitous impatiens! The writer documents his observations, and enriches the narrative with philosophical mullings over of the state of the world and of human endeavour.
This book will join my collection of B.C. natural history titles which we delve into beforehand and take with us on trips and refer to later to answer queries triggered by things we see in our travels. A most enjoyable read. Mr. Croft must have been a delightful person to know; I am glad I stumbled across his natural history memoir.