Musings / Boots, Birds and Bialik

Where today are the 'notes on nature' that used to be a feature of every self-respecting broadsheet?

Lord Copper, the proprietor of The Daily Beast in Evelyn Waugh's satire "Scoop," is anxious to find a reporter to cover the pending war in Ishmaelia. An influential society lady has been persuaded to help friends by puffing up the reputation of a novelist called William Boot (of whom Lord Copper has never hitherto heard) with the object of getting him the job. Believing that one foreign correspondent is like another, Lord Copper decides to give Boot the job, and entrusts the task of tracing Boot to his foreign editor, Mr. Salter. Salter notices that, by pure chance, a William Boot already appears on the payroll of The Daily Beast. Salter calls Boot in and, by threatening him with dismissal from his current occupation, bludgeons him into accepting the job in Ishmaelia. Boot is reluctant to accept the glittering journalistic prize dangled before him because he is very happy in his modest occupation.

This being an Evelyn Waugh novel, our William Boot is not the William Boot whom Lord Copper is seeking. Before he is, against his better judgment, plunged into the steamy affairs of Ishmaelia, our William Boot contentedly writes a column on country affairs for the Beast. The newly appointed war correspondent writes prose of the order of "Feather-footed through the splashy fen passes the questing vole," for the delectation of vole-loving readers.

I am not sure that even the so-called quality papers these days contain the notes on nature that used to be a feature of every self-respecting broadsheet. I would like to think that they do. And here I have to confess to an unfulfilled, and indeed unfulfillable, ambition: I think that, in another incarnation, I should like to be the one that writes the nature notes for a newspaper. I find it hard to reply, when asked by people unfamiliar with my oeuvre, what I write about, but I am certainly no nature writer. I did write one piece a few years ago on the jellyfish that infest our shores. The article betrayed no special knowledge of the jellyfish, but that apart, no one could confuse me with William Boot.

The fact of my un-Boot-like shortcomings was recently brought brutally home to me as my wife and I sat on a bench pleasurably watching two wagtails hopping on the sidewalk. What ensued would not have surprised William Boot, but it did me. The wagtails were joined by two other birds who demanded that the wagtails give way, which they did. What surprised me was that the usurpers were themselves small birds - brown creatures that I call sparrows or thrushes. My surprise arose from my expectation that there was no bird smaller than a sparrow. Whereas here it was, using its weight to push around a bird that I would have sworn was larger than it, but clearly wasn't. William Boot would not have made that mistake.

Yet, in applying for the Boot job, I bring a wealth of experience to the post. My curriculum vitae would include a spell during World War II as a museum curator. My cousins - my inseparable companions - and I managed an eclectic type of museum. It was wartime and the exhibits reflected that melancholy fact. Of course, there was the obligatory chunk of bomb shrapnel to which we added strings of that black stuff the Germans threw from their planes to confuse the Allied radar. Another rarity that would not fetch a bidder on eBay these days was a pre-war banana skin.

But it was our zoo of which we were proudest, and for which we carried out wide-ranging exploratory field trips. We were particularly proud of our collections of caterpillars. I regret that they never survived to emerge as the beautiful butterflies they doubtless would have become had we fed them the stuff that ambitious caterpillars need. In the avian field, we exhibited well-stocked bird's nests without succeeding in identifying the birds whose eggs these were. William Boot could have named them with ease.

With land and air conquered, there remained water, personified by a pond at a recreation area on the other side of our town. For our aquarium we had an array of jam jars that housed the tiny specimens we caught with our fishing nets - scraps of muslin nailed to bamboo sticks. Boot would have called the small fish we netted minnows and sticklebacks. We, townies provisionally forced to fly country colors, were compelled to use more generic terminology. We called them tiddlers.

So what disqualifies me from moving into the William Boot job now that he is unwillingly stuck in Ishmaelia? I lack no love for animals, though I confess that I would be hard put to spot a vole, questing or otherwise. But there is something more fundamental that distinguishes me from Boot. It is one of my regrets that I have a less-than-average ability to identify birds, flowers, fish, insects, plants. I can think of no reason why, other than my ethnic origins, when I go for a woodland stroll, I cannot confidently distinguish between an oak and an elm. It is idle to go into the reasons for my inability to match Boot in the field of zoology or botany. It is not a question of book learning: The Boots of this world have an attachment to the land they inherit. It is not something they learn at school; they are born into it.

A couple of years ago, I reviewed a book that contrasted the land-loving Apollonians (i.e., the William Boots of this world), with the urban Mercurians, of which the Jews are the most conspicuous examples. Put briefly, Apollonians recognize questing voles; Mercurians do not. It is all very well lamenting this situation, but it would be an error to believe that it is irreversible.

The Hebrew language includes one of literature's finest nature poems, far from the stereotype: Psalm 103. The Hebrew Enlightenment featured a strong call for a return to nature. Yet, there is a discernible difference between the "nature poems" of early modern Hebrew literature and what we should be forgiven as viewing as the real thing. Haim Nahman Bialik's "To the Bird" is a classic nature poem, but it must be admitted that, however much we admire this poem, we learn little about the bird even after we have read the whole thing. But if we compare that poem with the nature poems of Ted Hughes - "Crow" or "Pike," for example - we see William Boot at work. Hughes describes a real crow. Bialik's bird is a symbol; Hughes' is authentic.

I am afraid I would have made a hash of writing those nature notes. I should make a better job reporting on the war in Ishmaelia. I am, after all, a Mercurian.