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London’s Natural History by R.S.R. Fitter

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Feeding the pigeons in front of St Paul’s Cathedral – colour plate from London’s Natural History

This post is part of a series called Small Rain, exploring the history of urban nature writing.

London’s Natural History charts the natural history of London from its pre-historic, geological formation, through the Romans, the medieval period (when kites were a common London bird), the expansion of the city from the fifteenth century onwards, and on to its final bursting point in the mid-nineteenth century. It then looks at the various human impacts on the city’s flora and fauna in the present day (the present day being 1945), including the influence of traffic, refuse disposal, agriculture and the recent war. Whilst the history of London is interesting, it is the snapshot of London in 1945 that I find the most fascinating. For example, Fitter mentions the abundance of sparrows in London, according to Fitter they are the only London bird considered to be a Cockney. Since then the number of sparrows in London has drastically declined – by 60% between 1994 and 2004 according to the RSPB. On the other hand, he mentions the recent increase in the number of gulls in London, a bird that is still increasing in urban areas.

London’s Natural History is part of the New Naturalist series, which aims to make natural history accessible to a wider audience. I was unsure whether to include any of the New Naturalist books in this project (I have another New Naturalist book to read when I eventually get to 2014 in the form of David Goode’s Nature in Towns and Cities) because I wanted to stick to creative writing. London’s Natural History, whilst well written, is decidedly not creatively written. The stated aim of the New Naturalist series is: To interest the general reader in the wild life of Britain by recapturing the inquiring spirit of the old naturalists. The term ‘old naturalist’ reminded me of the recent debate around old nature writers versus new nature writers, whilst this debate seemed to primarily focus on content, another article I read also pointed to the style of writing: too much modern nature writing bears the smudges of the writers’ desperate groping for the mot juste. Page after page is dotted with too-carefully chosen “lyrical” words: sluice, knapped, sintering, root-nooks, moiling, fust – perfectly fine words in themselves, of course, but their cumulative effect is to make the writing reek overpoweringly of the lamp.

Without wading too deeply into this debate, what intrigued me about the writing in London’s Nature History is its attempt to be objective. Fitter is able to write about the impact of humans on London’s nature without having to pass judgement. For example, writing about the sudden expansion of London in the mid-nineteenth century, Fitter states:

In the centre of the area occupied by this vast community of human beings, the greatest that has ever been known on the face of the earth, is a solid core where hardly any soil ever sees the light of day. Apart from a few pocket-handkerchief churchyards and a handful of exiguous public flower-gardens, the soil, whereon alone a normal plant growth can be expected, is buried underneath the buildings, roads, railway lines and other barren man-made habitats. Few plants except the ubiquitous mosses, and among the animals only man’s own commensals… are able to find a living in this desert of asphalt and brick.

Even Fitter’s use of the words ‘barren’ and ‘desert’ doesn’t necessarily come across as pejorative, but rather the words point towards their literal meanings – land that is unable to support vegetation. But whilst Fitter appears objective about the state of nature in London, the Editor’s Preface is less so: In certain ways Mr Fitter’s book makes gloomy reading, for the progressive biological sterilisation of London is a sad history. Mr Fitter himself seems much less willing to make such judgements:

So long as the Thames was fringed with alder swamps there could be no London, so the swamps had to be drained and the alders to go. So long as the site of London was girt about with a dense old forest there could not be enough agriculture to support a large human community, so the forest had to be destroyed, and with it the large beasts which it harboured.

For the last two years I have worked for nature NGOs and one of the concepts that is becoming increasingly entrenched in thinking about nature conservation is ecosystem services – quite literally the services, such as water purification, clean air, soils to grow food in, that interconnected natural systems provide. Putting a monetary value on these services is seen as a way of convincing businesses and governments to contribute to protecting and conserving the ecosystems that provide them. Whilst this idea has its detractors, it also offers a way of thinking about nature that isn’t as “us or them” as the model Fitter describes – the swamps had to be drained, the forest had to be destroyed. Actually, the swamps and forests need to be conserved to prevent flooding and to prevent the release of the CO2 they absorb. I’m not sure if Fitter’s view is typical of his time or not, but a search on the brilliant Google Books Ngram Viewer suggests that the word ‘ecosystem’ was not widely used in 1945.

Ecosystems ngram viewer

Fitter also includes a chapter on ‘The Cult of Nature’, which looks at our complicated relationship with nature and the many ways in which people attempt to connect with nature. In fact, earlier on in the book he notes an intriguing idea: In the ancient pagan festival of May Day, now transformed into the international workers’ day, we can perhaps discern the beginnings of the modern cult of taking an aesthetic pleasure in Nature. I read that passage just before Christmas and I couldn’t help but wonder, could my Christmas tree and its previous iterations have helped us develop an aesthetic appreciation of nature? It’s hard to imagine a time when people didn’t find nature beautiful, but the fact that Fitter dedicates an entire chapter to the rise of this sensibility suggests that even in 1945 it was notable.

Much of the chapter focuses around our domestication of various plants and animals – according to Fitter the central shrine of the cult of nature is the zoo. As Fitter sees it, we don’t want the real, unsanitised version of nature, but a tamed, domesticated and categorised version. Sometimes, this appreciation for nature – and the desire to domesticate it (to literally bring it into our homes) – is not always good for nature. Fitter mentions the example of people picking wild flowers. However, Fitter is also optimistic: The other side of the picture… is the great and increasing interest in the wild animals and plants of the London area that is displayed by Londoners to-day. A recent surge in interest in rewilding – for example, a Lynx Trust UK survey found that 91% of respondents support the reintroduction of Lynx to their shores – suggests that the zoo is losing its central place at the nature shrine. But I hope Fitter’s assessment of Londoners’ increased interest in London’s nature is true – the number of urban nature writing books coming out of the capital in recent years would suggest so.

Indeed, it will be interesting to see how Fitter’s London compares with some of these later Londons. However, whilst reading London’s Natural History I came across a book I had previously missed when compiling my list of urban nature writing reads – Birds in London by W.H. Hudson, which was published in 1898, so for now I’ll be going back to a much older London that Fitter’s.

N.B. The second-hand copy of London’s Natural History I ordered, arrived without its dust jacket. Anyone familiar with the New Naturalist series will know that the beautifully illustrated dust jackets are part of their enduring appeal. However, I discovered that it is possible to order replacement jackets from the New Naturalist website.

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Author: Naomi Racz

I am a nature writer, with a particular interest in urban nature. I also write about social media and work in communications with an NGO.

2 thoughts on “London’s Natural History by R.S.R. Fitter

  1. Very interesting, Naomi! I have the Fitter and the more recent David Goode, and I will be fascinated to see what you make of the differences if/when you get round to the later book.

    • Thanks, I really enjoyed your ‘Where Have All The Sparrows Gone?’ blog post, I read it whilst I was researching London sparrows. You mention an old man feeding sparrows, Fitter also mentions an old man feeding sparrows in the park – I guess that was a common sight when sparrows were more common. Let’s see if I make it to Goode – at the moment I’m averaging about one book from my list every three months!

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