"You don’t need me to tell you now, as we stare down the grim barrel of an unfolding autumn and winter ahead, that the spring and summer of 2020 marked the first half of the very strangest, most appalling of years. The sheer numbers of those tragically stolen from us speak volumes about the realities of living in the midst of a global pandemic.
"It feels, then, almost sacrilegious to look back at the year thus far and complain about the day to day impacts on one’s botanising. Yet that is just as much a truth of recent months as the British Government’s bald statistics. For many of us, getting outside and looking for plants is, in normal circumstances, something we have long taken for granted. For weeks this year, in the height of lockdown, that was stolen entirely from us. Our brief forays from home were limited to gathering the bare essentials of daily life and, even as lockdown eased a little, our windows of daily exercise kept us near to home.
"That had a silver lining – many of us found enormous
pleasure in looking more closely than perhaps we had hitherto at the wildlife
that was to be found on our doorsteps. I know I did – it’s with a certain
rueful embarrassment that I must confess to having somehow overlooked for the
past 20 years what appears to be Shetland’s largest colony of Lesser Twayblade (image on left) just
five minutes brisk walk from my back door! That mild embarrassment was, of
course, countered by the sheer joy of discovering first one, then dozens, and
then many hundreds of flowering and non-flowering plants.
|Early Spider Orchid:
spotted by Jon
"That joy was being mirrored nationwide – social media
connected us, and the Twitter accounts of BSBI and Wild Flower Hour buzzed daily
with happy news of new plant after new plant that had, hitherto, gone unnoticed
in our collective midst. If I wasn’t enjoying the plants I found for myself, I
was getting a lot of vicarious pleasure from the discoveries of others.
"Stuck at home, shielding and unable to travel for work, I
found myself with unexpected time on my hands. This wasn’t all bad – I had time
to devote to finishing the manuscript of my next book, the successor to Orchid
Summer; but I also had time to read for pleasure, to escape both the horrors of
a global pandemic and our politicians found wanting, and the unfolding grim
news of fresh insults visited upon our planet’s environment.
"There has been a trend in nature writing, in recent years,
for books that explore the author’s relationship with the natural world and its
power to help the narrator to deal with an aspect of their personal life they
have found challenging. Bereavement, alcoholism, mental health, sexuality,
chronic illness… and more besides. I’ve found that absolutely wonderful – the
redemptive or healing power of the natural world is being recognised and
championed, and that’s vital and important.
|Lady's Slipper Orchid
"However, those haven’t been the sorts of books I’ve been
reading of late. I was looking for nature writing that transported me, to a
place, a time, a moment that was other than now. If I couldn’t travel more than
a few miles from home, I’d let the books on my shelves carry me away instead.
Most of all, I wanted to read books that were predominantly joyful as well as
thoughtful. I dived into old favourites, books by the likes of Annie Dillard,
Roger Deakin, Kenn Kaufman and Robert Michael Pyle.
"The past few months, then, have been a time of reading, of
writing, and of occasionally successful local plant-hunting. They’ve also been
studded with unexpected, out of the blue emails from people who have read Orchid
Summer as a little escapism of their own, and have taken a moment to write to
tell me they’ve enjoyed it, that it’s touched them in some way.
"I really can’t articulate just how touched and happy those unexpected emails have made me – I think, though it was not a conscious decision, that when I sat down and began to write Orchid Summer, I set out to write the sort of book I would enjoy reading. I didn’t know if other people would enjoy it too… but I’m delighted to hear that people have, that there is still an appetite for a good-hearted nature narrative that’s celebrating something – in this case the native wild orchids of Britain and Ireland, the places in which they are to be found, and the extraordinary stories of the people past and present who have fallen under the spell of plants and places alike.
|Northern Marsh x Frog Orchid
"I never quite knew who would crop up next in the orchids’ world – from Charles Darwin to Roald Dahl, Pliny the Elder to Emmeline Pankhurst, and many more besides, their stories were as colourful as the flowers themselves.
"Researching and writing Orchid Summer was some of the best
fun of my life – uncovering those stories, drawing them together and blending
them with my personal adventures as I looked for orchids around the British
Isles… it was the very best of times. I hoped that joy would be reflected in
the pages of the finished book.
"Still, I’m not sure if reading one’s own book is quite the
done thing! I haven’t read Orchid Summer cover to cover since I finished the
final polishes and tweaks of the editorial process some three years ago – and I
now have a list of new nature writing I’m looking forward to reading for the
"Having said that, with the country standing on the brink of
another lockdown, and a long haul through the uncertain months of the autumn,
winter and early spring ahead of us before the orchids start flowering again in
the wild, I hope a few more folk will pick up a copy of my first book, and
enjoy a virtual orchid summer from the comfort of an armchair at home.
"Stay safe, everyone".
If those beautifully written words from Jon are your first introduction to his writing, then do consider treating yourself to a copy of Orchid Summer, and if you are already a fan, watch this space - I've already asked him to come back and tell us more about his next book once it approaches publication. Meanwhile, you can follow Jon on Twitter here, enjoy his photographs on this page (they are all his!) and check out our orchid ID page for more orchid-related content to keep you going until next year's orchid rosettes start to appear.