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‘All we have, and all we are’ [book review]

A review of Tapestries of Life: Uncovering the Lifesaving Secrets of the Natural World by Anne Sverdrup-Thygeson, translated from the Norwegian by Lucy Moffatt

‘Nature is all we have, and all we are,’ writes Anne Sverdrup-Thygeson in Tapestries of Life, her second book to be translated into English by Lucy Moffatt following the extremely successful Extraordinary Insects. Just as in that book, she ostensibly sets out here to introduce readers to some of the world’s smallest but most fascinating creatures – ‘insects and other seemingly insignificant creatures with PR problems,’ as she puts it in her introduction – yet ends up writing an extremely compelling plea for us to protect the natural world: the only one we have. From microbes to towering trees via fig wasps and deep-sea creatures, Sverdrup-Thygeson takes us on a journey to parts of the planet we maybe didn’t think about before, infecting us along the way with her enthusiasm for all things weird and wonderful.

Cover image Tapestries of Life

Divided into themed chapters that are themselves broken into bite-sized essays, Tapestries of Life is an easy book to dip in and out of, and one that can be kept on hand as a reference for the future. Sverdrup-Thygeson has a talent for picking out the kind of facts it would be good to have memorised for a dinner party – that the US state of Oregon recently named an official state microbe is one that sticks out in particular – but does far more than simply provide a compendium of fascinating facts. Gradually, as the book unfolds, its short chapters weave together to create the final tapestry: a rich picture of our planet in its natural state, how much we humans have changed it, and how many unseen elements we rely on for our food and our health, the buildings we live in, just about any activity we can think of doing. Though she doesn’t preach – she prefers to demonstrate the earth’s marvels rather than lecture her readers – Sverdrup-Thygeson is crystal clear about the fact that ‘we have a responsibility to take care of nature [. . .] Big and small, ugly and beautiful, useful or not’.

Climate change and environmental protection have become big topics in recent years, and there are plenty of books out there – particularly in the non-fiction section – that adopt a popular-science approach to the problem, each hoping to find the magic words that will galvanise people into actively saving the planet, or even just considering the impact of their actions in environmental terms. Many of these seem geared towards shocking the reader into new ways of thinking, but Tapestries of Life takes a gentler line, urging us instead towards an appreciation of the planet, encouraging us to look at the smaller things and see how every living being is interconnected. Though she does write of the ‘shifting baseline’ – our inability to see the full scope of the problems facing us the further we move away from nature, just as our understanding of ‘forest’ is now quite different from what a natural forest actually should be – the author is more concerned with reaching us on an individual level, showing us not so much what has already vanished as what can still be saved, and why we should care about this.

Thanks to Lucy Moffatt’s spirited translation and Sverdrup-Thygeson’s infectious passion for her subject, it is almost impossible to read this book and not become enthused by it. Despite her apparently encyclopaedic knowledge of the insect world and the wider field of conservation biology, the author always has time for a joke or personal anecdote, to the extent that her character – rather than the creatures she describes for us – ends up carrying the book. Once begun, it is hard to set aside (the chapters are so short there is always time for just one more) and much of the refreshing imagery is indicative of a wide-eyed, open-to-wonder way of looking at the world that I instantly wanted to cultivate myself. Though a few illustrations are included, these are barely needed when the written descriptions are so vivid: describe a jellyfish as looking like a stack of dinner plates, for example, and not only can the reader imagine it, but they will remember it, too.

Transmitting a particular voice so strongly and seamlessly is no mean feat, but translator Lucy Moffatt has already proved herself extremely accomplished at this (earlier this year I read her translation of Anders Bortne’s Sleepless, which has a different but equally memorable narrative style). She has also managed to strike the right balance between language that is plain enough for younger readers to appreciate – Sverdrup-Thygeson has also written books for children; it shows – yet that fully conveys the seriousness of the underlying message and the more complex aspects of conservation science. As a result, Tapestries of Life is a book with broad appeal – and rightly so.

‘To practise conservation biology is to deal with a never-ending set of dilemmas,’ writes Sverdrup-Thygeson – and, unfortunately, to write about it involves plenty of dilemmas as well. Much information has had to be left out of this book, which at times shows through in chapter sections that end abruptly just as the author seemed to be getting into her flow, or a slight lack of connection between some of these segments. This kind of quibble can be seen as a compliment, really – ultimately, I would have liked more of the book – but anyone expecting an extremely detailed work on the insect world alone would be advised to adjust their expectations and accept Tapestries of Life for what it is.

Any author who looks at a campfire and sees ‘delayed sunshine’ returning to us as part of the natural cycle is the kind of writer I can get on board with, and Sverdrup-Thygeson offers us not just this image, but many more besides. Infused with joy, intelligence and a deep-rooted love for the natural world, Tapestries of Life is a refreshing and entirely memorable appeal to save the planet – starting by simply opening our eyes.

Tapestries of Life: Uncovering the Lifesaving Secrets of the Natural World by Anne Sverdrup-Thygeson, translated from the Norwegian by Lucy Moffatt is published by HarperCollins on 10 June 2021. Many thanks to the publisher and Anne Cater of Random Things Tours for so kindly organising a review copy and a space on the publication blog tour.

Blog Tour Tapestries of Life

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