Anthologies that celebrate the seasons, and spring in particular, are things to be wary of. There must have been hundreds of compilations of popular favourite writings, differing mainly in the order in which they are presented, and nowadays sold cheaply in garden centres on Mothers’ Day morning. They usually come packaged with stalks of chewing-hay and cowpat scratch and sniff cards.
An anthology edited by Melissa Harrison was never going to stick to that beaten track, though. Harrison is a fiction writer whose two novels, Clay and At Hawthorn Time, “foreground nature”, and a Times Nature Notebook columnist. Spring: An anthology for the changing seasons is the first of four seasonal anthologies published by the Wildlife Trusts, all with Harrison as editor. Apart from the introduction, an excerpt from Clay is her sole contribution to the anthology itself, sadly. But more important is her imaginative commissioning of new works and choice of previously published pieces to accompany them.
There are several refreshing novelties in this book, gender balance being one. Another is the high number of specially-written pieces including from several newish and/or youngish writers whose – mainly prose – contributions make up about half the book. This serves to remind us both that the future of nature writing – if we must use the label – is under no threat, at least not from the writers themselves, and that nature writing is not all false reminiscence and idyll-mongering. The range of styles and approaches includes some fine wordsmithing (Darlington, Battson, Foster, to name three) and some novel angles (Medtia), alongside polished examples of a more timeless kind (Hunter). Understandably, and tolerably, a few pieces are mainly promotional.
Alongside these new works is a wealth of variety fairly representing the period 1780-2014, with a couple of Old and Middle English texts for good measure. Excerpts from classic novels like Jane Eyre, Lorna Doone and Wind in the Willows sit alongside poets from Chaucer to Larkin to several writing today. There are unexpected contributions from writers better known in other contexts (Orwell, Lawrence) and expected inclusions from diarists White, Kilvert and Dorothy Wordsworth. All of which means that occasional appearances of garden centre favourites by Housman, Hopkins, Thomas (E), Thomas (D) and Browning seem as well-chosen as the rest, and properly complete the survey.
Laurence Rose is a conservationist, writer and composer. He has worked for the RSPB since 1983.