Tuesday 22 September 2020

Orchid Summer Revisited

You may have already read the wonderful book Orchid Summer by Shetland-based author Jon Dunn which was published in 2018. I invited Jon to the BSBI Annual Exhibition Meeting that year to tell us more and sign copies of his book but unfortunately we had inadvertently scheduled our event for the same day as Jon's birthday so alas he wasn't able to join us. 

In recent months, however, people have been revisiting the book, or discovering it for the first time, so I asked Jon to write something about Orchid Summer for News & Views readers. 

Here's what he sent me:

"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:
un-named variation
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 first time...

"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.

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