ECOS 39 (4): Book Review: EARTH TO EARTH

ECOS 39(4)

EARTH TO EARTH

A Natural History of Churchyards

Stefan Buczacki

Unicorn Publishing

2018

160 pages

Hardback £15.00

ISBN: 978-1-910787-74-8

Review by Laura Thomas-Walters

"...Cemetery of kisses, there is still fire in your tombs, 
       Still the fruited boughs burn, pecked at by bids."
               - A Song of Dispair, Pablo Neruda, 1924

Quotations, such as the one above, evocatively pepper Earth to Earth. Full of longing and sadness they are accompanied by beautiful colour photographs and pen and ink drawings that are the real selling point of this book. It is unusual for a nature book to start with a foreword from a former Bishop, but when the subject matter is the animals and plants that can be found in churchyards, a blending of science and art seems appropriate.

There are around 10,000 churchyards belonging to the Church of England alone in the UK. Many have been enclosed for centuries, stemming from a 1603 law. One of the oldest trees in Europe, and possibly the oldest in Britain at between 2,000-4,000 years, is a yew tree in a churchyard at Fortingall, Scotland. As sacred places churchyards are rarely disturbed other than the specifics of a burial. This means that they can function as a refuge for all sorts of species. Several cathedrals have online nest-cams where you can watch peregrines nesting high on a cathedral ledge, and around half of Norfolk’s populations of the wild flowers cowslip, sorrel, and pignut are thought to be found in its churchyards. At the finer detail, a chapter of the book is devoted to the importance of lichen on churchyard stonework. 

Lacking any form of scientific references, perhaps Earth to Earth is best suited for members of the lay public with an interest in British nature or church history. Indeed, the final chapter focusses on what churchyard authorities can do to help preserve the wildlife in their care. As contact with nature can greatly benefit our emotional and physical wellbeing, and churchyards have a captive audience of visitors, I was surprised at the book’s lack of discussion of the varied range of benefits generated by the wildlife of these green sanctuaries. 

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