‘ALONE in the Wash wilderness, I loved the haunting sound of the plaintive curlew as it penetrated the vast open spaces of the salt marshes.’
Nature has always been at the centre of poet and author Jim Emerton’s life. Whether at the top of his game in the world of racing pigeons, as a horticulturalist at Kew Gardens or, in his youth, as a follower of country pursuits, in particular hunting.
But the latter came to an end after a close encounter with a fox. ‘In a field hedgerow in Chellaston, Derbyshire, he faced me and I knew that I must not shoot,’ he writes in his latest book My World of Creatures. ‘I realised in those intense moments that we were all united in nature, all joint lifeforms on planet Earth.’
His changing relationship with nature is documented in this entertaining book with its quirky cartoon-style illustrations. The paperback’s 79 pages capture the characteristics of the many animals and birds encountered by Jim on his travels across the world.
The former Bradford College student, who has written extensively about his career in professional pigeon racing, does not confine his astute, affectionate observations to British wildlife.
The octopus, mongoose, antelope and vulture are among the many wonderful creatures that come under his literary microscope. From the exotic to the familiar - the humble dog and cat, our domestic pets, are also given space - Jim’s comments are often spot on. ‘Cats are not easy animals to read, as they are often aloof and within their own enigmatic being,’ he writes. As a cat owner, I can vouch for that.
Jim has come across most of the creatures he describes on his adventures. He has witnessed the ‘macbre sight’ of vultures dropping down out of an Indian sky ‘to feast on the cremated bodies of the Hindu dead before the ashes are tossed into the holy Ganges.’
He has admired eagles ‘as they soar over the Himalaya in Nepal.’ Clearly in awe of these top predators, he writes of their key function in their ecosystems. And he has ridden on the backs of elephants ‘on a steamy jungle trek in Goa’ and encountered alligators while gliding through the Florida everglades in an airboat.
Even the poor old dodo gets a mention, having ‘declined, as the passenger pigeon did later, due to depredation by the ruthlessness of man. It remains an enduring, archetypal symbol of vulnerability in the natural world. With a human population explosion, global pollution and greed, many species remain at the mercy of man.’
As well as adventuring in the world’s off-the-beaten-track places, he draws upon his experiences as a zookeeper, when he was able to observe creatures close up, and he does not forget the small but vital ecosystems in his own back Yorkshire garden.
Here, birds including the robin and and sparrow take centre stage, as well as caterpillars and butterflies. Of robins, he writes: ‘These pretty little birds of Christmas card fame are not so gentle in real life; they will fight to the death over territory and breeding rights.’
Alas, my favourite bird, the intelligent crow, is absent from the book.
It must have been a struggle for Jim to devote only 14 lines to the pigeon - surely his favourite creature - with which he has forged such a close relationship.
His collections of musings offer insights not only into the menagerie contained within these pages, but into what makes the philosopher tick.
With larger-than-average text and double-line spacing, the book is easy to read and easy to dip in and out of.
Jim has much to say on many a subject, and I sense that there is a lot more where this came from.
l Jim’s World of Creatures by Jim Emerton is published by Mereo Books, priced £9.99 from amazon.co.uk or waterstones.com.