Wednesday, March 27, 2019

the natural history of hardbacks

For the past few weeks my small flat's been invaded by half-a-dozen boxes of natural history books. I was given them following the recent death of a relation and thought I might try my hand at selling them. I thought of selling them myself via Amazon Marketplace, but I baulked at the idea of paying a monthly fee. I also checked out Ziffit, a wonderfully simple system where you scan the barcode and they offer you an immediate price. But this only works for newish books, and not for e.g. the New Naturalists, which I knew were the most collectable part of the collection. Anyway I've ended up going the old-fashioned way of dealing with a specialist bookseller, and tomorrow the books are on their way.

Book collecting is an alien world to me; my own books are for use and don't get well looked after -- Sorry, that sounds pompous. I'd struggle if I was challenged to explain what actual use I put them to -- writing trivial posts like this? learning languages I don't need to know? No, I had better forget that holier-than-thou stance: it's all just hobbyism. It's just that I think books deserve to be read. Well, of course, -- but shouldn't they also be studied and preserved?...  Our engagement with other artefacts can't be prescribed: always there's an act of faith in something we care about, as well as a feeling of self-fulfilment, as well as the sheer pleasure it brings us. Collecting books and reading books are alike in all three aspects.

Anyway, I found it very interesting to learn how to catalogue books in the sort of way that is meaningful to collectors: to write things like "Fading to DJ spine", "Some foxing on page edges", "DJ with some small tears and lacunae", and to correctly use the terms "Very good", "Fine" and "As new".

The essence of selling books for the collectors' market is that you must handle them as little as possible. They must be securely stored in a dry and mildly heated home, and at no risk of direct sunlight. (All very inconvenient when you are stepping round them every day.)

Of course, you must not read them. Now I don't believe there is any book on earth that I couldn't get interested in, but I have been very steadfast about not interesting myself in these. As it happens, most of them belong to a sub-genre of the natural history book of which I have never taken any notice before: wildlife art (flowers, birds, country scenes...). My abiding impression, from the briefest of guilty glances, is the astonishing profusion of human creativity. It's a tropical fauna in its own right, and one we can never hope to do justice to.

The New Naturalists, of course, are quite a different matter: fortunately I'd read many of these volumes before. The one I most regretted not spending more time with is Mountain Flowers by John Raven and Max Walters. I hope I'll get another chance one day.

Anyway, this post is a brief memorial.

 Mountain Flowers by John Raven and Max Walters. One of the famous jacket designs by Clifford and Rosemary Ellis.

(c)  ANGUS

       The next step in our eastward progress is a long one.  I have never been, I am sorry to say, either on Ben-y-Gloe itself or on the steep and rocky slopes above Loch Loch.  The whole of that area deserves a thorough exploration.  The yellow-flowered Oxytropis campestris, which is known elsewhere in Britain only in Glen Fee (see p. 179), is certainly still to be seen near Loch Loch, while Ben-y-Gloe may yet yield an even greater treasure in Rubus arcticus. This relative of the cloudberry seems lately to have been rather too definitely excluded from the British list. According to Smith's English Botany "the late Rev. Dr. Walker, Professor of Natural History at Edinburgh, informs me in the year 1782 of his having gathered this beautiful plant in rocky mountainous parts of the Isle of Mull.  Mr. Sowerby has been favoured by Richard Cotton, Esq., with dry wild specimens from the high regions of Ben y Glo, Blair, in Scotland, which agree with that in our plate." Again, the Report of the Botanical Society of Edinburgh for 1841 records "a specimen, too imperfect to decide, by J. Robertson, from head of Glen Tilt", no great distance from Ben-y-Gloe.  Druce (1920), in his article on "The Dubious Plants of Britain," asks:  "May the dwarf alpine one-flowered form of Geum rivale have been mistaken for it?"  But not only does it seem unlikely that so familiar a British species should have been mistaken, and by competent botanists too, for one so unfamiliar, but there are also, in the herbarium of the British Museum, specimens which were apparently collected in Scotland and which are undoubtedly rightly named. It is hard to resist the conclusion that Rubus arcticus will one day be reinstated in our list, and the exploration of Ben-y-Gloe stands high on my agenda.  But since all that I know of the mountain at present is at best second-hand we must move on eastwards to my next selected area, in the neighbourhood of Caenlochan Glen.

(Mountain Flowers, pp. 173-174, from one of John Raven's chapters).

[Rubus arcticus, the Arctic Brambleberry (Sw: Åkebär) has not been seen since 1850, according to the BSBI atlas, which speculates that the plants might have germinated from seed carried by birds from the arctic, and they were probably barren, like most individuals of this species in the more southerly parts of Scandinavia.]

Green Hairstreak by Gordon Beningfield, from Beningfield's Butterflies.

Early Marsh Orchid, Willowleaf Yellowhead and Flesh-Fly, from Lars Jonsson's Birds.

Willowleaf Yellowhead is Inula salicina (Sw: Krissla), known in the UK as Irish Fleabane. It grows only in SW Ireland, where it is now restricted to a single location. It has thus been considered part of the "Lusitanian" element in our flora. But it certainly isn't a plant of Portugal; on the Iberian peninsula it's more or less restricted to NE Spain. It's really a plant of central and eastern Europe, extending far into Russia. The term is, however, probably correct in implying that the highly anomalous Irish population must have come from the south. Like a number of other species, Inula salicina seems to have a deep aversion to going anywhere near the North Sea. It grows in central and southern Sweden, but is rare. Lars Jonsson's specimen was from Vamlingbo on the Baltic island of Gotland.

The New South Wales Wolf, from Thomas Bewick's A General History of Quadrupeds.

From a reprint of the 1790 edition. Bewick was bang up to date. The Dingo only became known to British settlers in 1788, at Port Jackson.

Stonechat, from Cutting Away: The Linocuts of Robert Gillmor.

Craig Weir, illustration by Keith Brockie, from Polly Pullar, Rural Portraits: Scottish Native Farm Animals, Characters and Landscapes. 


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