Nature writing from the UK, despite being sometimes quite lyrical and compelling, can still have an English sensibleness about it. The writing of Vaclav Cilek, on the other hand, is something else altogether. Although a geologist, and a pretty famous one, as far as geologists go, having appeared on Czech TV, he is also a translator of spiritual texts, and his writings mix direct observation of the environment with poetic flights and descriptions of the mythology, magic and spirituality of the countryside, aspects which seem to have disappeared from, or at least been minimised in more Western European views of nature.
To Breathe with Birds is a new collection of Cilek’s writings that covers topics such as how trees used to be treated like members of the family, or pets, with their own feelings. He relates the history of asphalt, that often unrecognised surface that accounts for much of our cities and towns. There is a story about a martyr’s bones and the mystery of their eventual resting place, descriptions of visions in the countryside, and commentary on the way landscape affects memory (where he refers to Simon Schama’s significant and intriguing book Landscape and Memory). And Cilek refers to the way landscape changes, the way humans have cultivated, abandoned and repurposed the landscape. He offers a nuanced view, emphasising the need for scale, interaction and sensitivity, but doesn’t see change as necessarily bad, suggesting that humanised landscapes can provide plants, always the opportunists, with new environments, and can inadvertently create new ecosystems. But his sharp observation of the complexities of landscape history, microclimates, topography, etc. acts as a caution against the creeping homogeneity of urban environments.