My thanks to Elliot and Thompson and NetGalley for a review copy of this book.
‘Stop and smell the roses’ we are sometimes told or tell ourselves. Slow down, look about, and take in the beauty and wonders of life around you at all times—it isn’t just flowers, but birds, insects, bees and butterflies, trees and plants, and much more. And that’s what Lev Parikian’s Light Rains Sometimes Fall: A British Year through Japan’s 72 Seasons invites us to do.
We usually think of seasons in terms of the typical four—spring, summer, autumn, and winter, but really, depending on where in the world one is, these vary and can be more or less in number (here in India, the monsoon is, of course, another). The Japanese conception of seasons is very different with the four seasons divided into six and further three subdivisions, totalling to 72 micro-seasons of five days each. Each of these reflect the subtle little changes in weather, the coming or going of seasonal birds, insects, frogs, or flowers, the ripening or harvest of a fruit or a crop and such. Using these micro-seasons as a guide, the author charts his observations of the changes in the place where he lives—South London—mostly his home and neighbourhood, and the cemetery where he takes his daily walks, for the year he writes his experiences of began in February 2020, and not long after he started, lockdown began.
From new leaves appearing in spring, to subtle changes in the weather, the arrival of the seasonal birds he watches out for every year, to butterflies, bees, and dragonflies, little insects or spiders, or even mushrooms cropping up in hidden corners, mosses and lichens, the author traces it all. Each chapter is named after his own observations of that period such as ‘Dunnock defies the traffic noise’, ‘Bird song fills the air’, ‘Maple reaches peak of glory’ or ‘Bracken turns to bronze’. Alongside, we also find in each chapter, the name of its Japanese counterpart (oftentimes very different) like ‘Chrysanthemums bloom’, ‘First lotus blossoms’, ‘Thick fog descends’, ‘Silkworms start feasting on mulberry leaves’, or ‘Tachibana citrus tree leaves turn yellow’ (both in English and Kanji)—some names in either case, are poetic and others plain.
The book is written in a casual, chatty tone (the ‘f’ word creeps in quite a few times) pretty much as though the author is speaking to us of his experiences, but is filled with lovely, detailed descriptions of all that he observes, but at the same time also a thread of humour running through it, which I enjoyed. (Besides the actual humour, I also found myself laughing a little at his terming 30oC weather as baking coming from a place where 44 is quite regularly reached; and our winter sees 2oC too, even if we don’t have snow and ice.) But don’t let the humour and causal tone fool you, for the author, a keen birder with other books to his credit, knows his birds, and even though he is a little self-deprecatory about it, he also knows about other aspects of nature as well, and his knowledge shines through in the book.
The seasons themselves, even when subdivided into such small periods, aren’t quite so easy to compartmentalize, as the author tells as, for nature ‘rolls and waves, ebbs and flows, the distinctions often too blurred for us to notice’. They also have the ability to surprise for even the birds the author knows to expect at a certain time, can still surprise him while alongside, on some occasions there are bigger surprises in the sighting of unexpected birds or butterflies, among others. But whether commonplace or unusual, much of what the author sees, because of how closely he observes it, and the attention he pays to it, has the ability to amaze, surprise and cause his eyes to pop with wonder. As he writes
‘…looking closely at something as it were for the first time—it’s a way of finding beauty and interest in the mundane, learning to appreciate the things that form the backdrop to everyday life’.
And it is not just the aesthetics of these but also the feats they are able to accomplish—from tiny creatures migrating several thousand miles every year, to others knowing just where they have hidden hundreds of acorns. The author has his favourites among them of course, and also some he doesn’t approve of—as would any person. (Of course, I don’t, like him, find poor parakeets or grey squirrels annoying, nor am I able to not get queasy about the unpleasant sides of nature—I might not fault the predator, but I do pity the prey.).
Nature is all around us, yet in our daily lives, ‘civilised’ as we call ourselves, most of us have all but cut ourselves from it. As the author writes, ‘we have become estranged from the rhythms of nature’ (this is in contrast to Japanese culture which has words for moon-viewing (tsukimi), viewing the cherry blossoms (hanami) and even leaf viewing (momijigiri)—a connect with nature lacking in others, and more so in modern life). We try to master and control it or fear it, rather than treating it with the respect or love it deserves. Even if not as intently as the author, if we would stop for a moment and take in the wonders that the world around us has—from the smallest to the largest thing—not only would our daily lives be a little brighter, perhaps, one would be able to avoid catastrophes like the one we have landed ourselves in now.
I really enjoyed reading the book, which also led me to look up a lot of British birds that I was unfamiliar with like dunnocks, firecrests etc. My favourite part though turned out to be a very straightforward sentence about the Harvest Moon—‘The Harvest Moon is simply the full moon that occurs nearest the autumn equinox’, for this was the full moon I stood up on my terrace looking at just the day I was reading this book, and indeed the next evening in line with the moon festival and Tsukimi!
A wonderful read for birders and nature lovers.
4.5 stars (p.s. There’s a ‘Gods’s daisy chain’ quote which Wodehouse fans will enjoy; and my favourite fact that I discovered in the book was that the Bavarian term for squirrels translates to ‘Oak Kitten’!)