On nature and belonging in an ancient forest.
The Circling Sky describes a year’s worth of regular visits Neil Ansell made to the New Forest in Southern England beginning in early 2019. Ansell was born and raised near the forest, and wanted to re-explore an area that had meant a great deal to him as an enthusiastic young naturalist.
The book is primarily about the nature Ansell encounters during his visits to the forest, but he also finds time to reflect on his younger days, and to philosophise about our own species’ impact on the natural world.
Agreeably, Ansell tends to set out on his walks without any particular aim in mind. He doesn’t seem especially concerned to encounter the forest’s headline species. As he puts it, ‘My natural inclination has always been to just wander out alone, and see what I see, and miss what I miss.’ It seems to me the most enjoyable nature encounters are those in which you simply come across species getting on with the all-important business of getting on. There are many such encounters in this book, not just with birds and mammals, but also with trees, flowers and invertebrates—especially butterflies and dragonflies. Ansell is particularly good at describing the roles individual species play in the local ecosystems. ‘Everything affects everything else,’ he explains; ‘we are all on this journey together. Ecosystems evolve, just as surely as do species.’
And, just as surely as do species, ecosystems can diminish and ultimately die out. In recent times, this has been mostly due to our own species’ actions. While Ansell is quick to endorse the idea that we should all take steps to reduce our own impact on the natural world, he says he can’t help feeling ‘we have all been conned into believing that we share equal responsibility’. The fault is not with individuals, but with the system itself: a system ‘we have all been dropped into […] that was never of our own choosing’. It’s the system that needs addressing, not simply the actions of individuals caught up inside it.
I don’t want to give the impression that The Circling Sky is all doom and gloom. Far from it. The joy far outweighs the melancholy. But writing about our species’ impact on our planet has become almost a necessity in the early years of the twenty-first century. As Ansell puts it:
Nature writing may often be read for comfort and reassurance, but perhaps we need to allow a little room for anger too, for the ability to rage at everything that has been taken from us, and been taken by us.
Ansell gets the balance just right: plenty of comfort and reassurance, mixed with just a little bit of anger.
Disclosure: Neil Ansell provided some cover blurb for my book On the Moor. I have since met him, and consider him a personal friend. I received a free review copy of The Circling Sky from the publisher.