There is something about books published in the 50s and 60s. They still have the understatement in terms of design, with traditional bindings and jackets not clamouring for attention, but there are also elements of a loosening of design, in the use of fonts and, dare-I-say, groovier elements in the illustration. Martson Bates’ book The Forest and the Sea has a lovely, childish cover painting of trees and fish, with hand-done sans serif lettering. Inside, the book is more formal in design, but with black and white pen drawings of scenes and animals that are evocative even if they would seem inadequate in these days of full-colour DK-style maxed-out illustrating. The pages are thick and rough and you can feel the ink. It is undoubtedly an aesthetically pleasing production, like a well-worn yet elegant and dependable colonial antique chest of drawers. The experience of picking up a book like this in a second hand store cannot be replicated elsewhere.
Bates was a zoologist and environmentalist of sorts, not unlike Rachel Carson, and The Forest and the Sea is a work of popular science that illustrates the then infant pursuit of ecology, or the idea that living things are interconnected in an ecosystem. Bates’ book is a warmingly conversational overview of various types of ecosystems – jungle, sea, etc. – and the various ways that animals and plants depend on one another. Including people – he is keen to ensure that human beings are included, which of course leads to thoughts about the goodness (or otherwise – largely otherwise) of our impact in this chain. His style is disarming. While it seems as if he just rambling from one subject to the next, the book actually follows a completely logical structure. This is the gift of the good author. There are plenty of good examples of contemporary nature writing out there. But sometimes they try a little too hard. And with good reason. It’s a crowded market. Bates’ book comes from an age where a good, simple story, told well, was reason enough to publish, and to buy.