Transporting urban readers to a new unappreciated world

Skimming Stones

Cowen and Critchley,

Coronet Books, €19.80;

adobe ebook, €8.49

Review: Damien Enright

The message of Skimming Stones is that the wild outdoors is hard-wired into human conciousness and unless we connect with it we are not whole.

Contact with nature transports us into an eternal world, of which we are a natural part but from which the rigours of 20th century life removes us. It is a ‘message’ book addressed, in the main, to urbanites.

In the introduction, the authors separately tell the story of how they came to collaborate. They were working in a city office when they met. Cowen had had a country childhood, sharing ‘jungle’ adventures with his brother. In adulthood, he had moved to the city and followed a career in journalism, PR and music.

“Success began to materialise but, contrary to what I had imagined, it came with a mounting sense of alienation ... I had lost my place in the world. With it, I had lost a large part of myself too.”

Critchley was a London boy, but holidays in Cornwall made a deep impression. He and Cowen found they shared an interest in literature and nature. This was the genesis of rural expeditions together and, eventually, of the book.

Skimming Stones is an interesting, mixum-gatherum read. For those acquainted with the natural history of these islands, some of the observations seem a little obvious. However, the target readership is ‘townies’ and for them the information and accounts of the authors’ countryside expeditions may prove fascinating. A day beyond the city, with this book in hand, will transport urban readers to a new unappreciated world.

Chapters guide the reader to the delights of seasides and coasts, fields and forests and mountains and rivers. Each venue is replete with natural history and prehistory. The science of successful fossil hunting is a theme of the seashore chapter, as is the exploration of rock pools and descriptions of the denizens to be found therein.

The ‘skimming stones’ title refers to man’s early and universal instinct to skip stones on water or, as the Arabs apparently do, on sand. This impulse illustrates how absorption in an age-old game can transport one from day-to-day cares into deeper, more important insights. In the introduction of my book, A Place Near Heaven: A Year in West Cork, I explained that thoughts conceived in tranquility, as I skipped stones on Courtacsherry Bay, led to my eventual return to Ireland.

Skimming Stones proposes that the reader becomes closer to nature by practicing rural pastimes and skills. Making a flute from an elm branch or blowing a cacophony through a reed might, indeed, pleasantly while away an hour if one loses interest in the almost-endless diversity of flowers, birds, butterflies and bees. However, instructions and diagrams for building an overnight woodland shelter or a snow-block igloo strikes me as simply trendy, Ray Mears-type information, titillating for armchair readers but having little relevance to the appreciation of nature’s bounty on these islands.

* Damien Enright’s The Kindness of Place, Twenty Years in West Cork (Gill & Macmillan) was published last month. It follows nature month-by-month as observed over 20 years.


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