Sharing nature: a guide in the wilderness

16 June 2017

Over the past fortnight we asked you to share your nature photos on the theme of WILD. The public rated Mark Thomas’ contribution – the Observer’s Book of Birds –  as the most meaningful.

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Mark Thomas’ copy of the Observer’s Book of Birds. Image credit: Mark Thomas.

It seems a strange claim but I can remember the exact moment when my life-long love of wild birds began: it was in one of those long hot summers of the early 1970s. I was sitting in the garden, idly fingering through the yellowed pages of an unwanted and initially uninspiring birthday gift: the Observer’s Book of Birds. Just as I reached the coloured plate of greenfinches by the Dutch artist John Gerrard Keulemans, two of the same finches landed in a hawthorn bush – literally feet away from me.

Unaware of my presence, the finches continued to arrange themselves seemingly into the exact positions of the greenfinches in my book. The birds tilted their heads towards me, their beady eyes fixed on me, the late afternoon sun adding limelight to their delicate hues of yellow and green. This vision lasted just long enough for me to be hooked for a lifetime. Then the birds disappeared.

The Observer’s Book of Birds inspired a whole generation of nature lovers just like me. Where I lived, in the heart of the industrial North West, birdwatching was a rite of passage. It was as much of a ‘working-class’ pursuit as football on a Saturday afternoon or religiously going to the swimming baths each Sunday.

Through the long summer nights, with our Observer’s Book in hand, we followed a well-worked route of varied habitats – each a relic of St.Helens’ industrial past. ‘The Burgies’, a derelict old glass tip was our woodland; ‘the Swamp’, the canal overflow, was our reed bed; ‘the Power-station’ offered towering cliffs of rusty iron. At each location we ticked our books to record the species seen. I still have my book with ticks and dates recording sightings of spotted flycatchers; water rails; lesser-spotted woodpeckers and other long since disappeared species.

I have often wondered why the Observer’s Book of Birds was such an inspirational text for millions of bird lovers. The prosaic style, composed by the first secretary of The Bird-Lovers’ League, S. Vere Benson, echoed a kindly aunt who had read too much Beatrix Potter.

Birds were given a personality: the dotterel was a “pathetic bird”, the cuckoo was “not an admirable creature”, and the robin was both “friendly and intelligent”. This anthropomorphic approach made the text not only poetic, but very accessible to a wide range of social backgrounds. The book was even cited as an influence for Sir Paul McCartney’s 1968 Beatles’ song Blackbird. Needless to say, the book was an instant best seller.

Part of the charm of the Observer’s Book of Birds lay in its masterful illustrations. The vast majority of the paintings were the work of two artists of utter genius – Archibald Thorburn and the lesser known John Gerrard Keulemans. Birds were carefully painted into the landscape of their natural habitat, even the accompanying flora and fauna were painted with botanical precision.

This technique added a mystery to the birds, a strangely enigmatic quality of something unworldly and ethereal. The illustration of the tawny owl, sitting nestled in the hollow of an ivy-clad oak, illustrates this perfectly – it was as if every farmer’s wood held such a treasure to be discovered by the trained eye.

Although contemporary field-guides are certainly superior as aids to identification, they can never come close to creating the childhood parables of imagination crafted by the Observer’s Book of Birds. It defined a generation of nature- lovers.

Mark donated his image to Sharing Nature, which is part of the upcoming exhibition ‘A museum of modern nature’. Find out more about Sharing Nature , browse the latest photos and submit your own.