Back in the 1980s Robert Redford and Meryl Streep bought the story of Karen Blixen to our screens in the film Out of Africa. I enjoyed it so much that I read the book and was transported by her prose to Kenya at the beginning of the 20th century. Baroness Blixen wrote so beautifully that at one point Ernest Hemingway said she should have won the Nobel Prize for literature. The book has remained one of my all time favourites and I have re-read it many times.
Karen Blixen’s house, Nairobi
In 2017 I was lucky enough to visit Kenya and was overjoyed to find that her house on the outskirts of Nairobi is still there and open as a museum. I sat outside her back door and stared out at the view of the Ngong Hills that she loved so much. Back in our guest house, I was unpacking when I found that someone had left a paperback in the top drawer of the bedside table. It was called Circling the Sun by Paula McLain. Glancing at the front cover I thought “Oh that looks like a romance set in Kenya, great holiday book.” I started to read, and after a while some of the characters started to sound familiar. What I thought was fiction was actually the novelised biography of one of the most extraordinary women I have ever come across.
Beryl Markham was a friend of Karen Blixen, at least for a while. She was also a lover of Dennis Finch-Hatton (Robert Redford) and was having an affair with him at the time of his tragic death in a plane crash. She was also the first female race horse trainer licensed in Kenya and the first woman to fly solo across the Atlantic from East to West. She had an affair with the Prince of Wales which Buckingham Palace were still paying her to keep quiet about when she died in her 80s!
So escape the lockdown and transport yourself to Africa and read 2 very different but deeply interwoven books.
It could either be seen as ironic or as a huge blessing, that during this darkest time for all of us, nature has given us one of the most beautiful springs I can remember. In my garden, there is cherry, pear and apple blossom all out at the same time, and the bluebells are joining in too. The sun has been out far more than is usual for this time of year, and rain so rare I have had to water what I have left in the veg patch!
We in this part of Oxfordshire live where access to the countryside is easy and there is plenty of space for everyone to enjoy it without compromising our social distancing. We should never forget how lucky we are compared to those in cities with very limited green space that has to be shared with many.
Here are 2 book recommendations that may change the way you look at nature for good:
You and the tree in your backyard come from a common ancestor. A billion and a half years ago, the two of you parted ways. But even now, after an immense journey in separate directions, that tree and you still share a quarter of your genes …
This is a novel about nine strangers, each summoned in different ways by the natural world, who are brought together in the last stand to save it from catastrophe. Emma Thompson said it was the best book she had read in 10 years, Robert Macfarlane said it was brilliantly written, and it won the Pulitzer Prize for fiction in 2019. The Madhatter Bookshop Bookgroup read it a few months ago and we all loved it – which as any of you out there in book groups know, is highly unusual.
The Burrells’ degraded agricultural land has become a functioning ecosystem again, heaving with life – all by itself.
Isabella Tree tells the story of the ‘Knepp experiment’, a pioneering rewilding project in West Sussex. The Knepp Estate was a loss-making farm heavily in debt when Isabella and her husband took the controversial decision to rewild it using free-roaming grazing animals to create new habitats for wildlife. The transformation she relates is truly astounding and made me start to view the countryside I have known all my life in a new light.