A nature book taking an old-fashioned visual approach has become a surprise best-seller. Roger Ratcliffe talks to one of its authors
Go to any book fair or antiquarian bookshop and you'll often find these grandiose, richly-illustrated Victorian tomes on plants, birds, mammals and every other form of life on earth. These books were never made for the rucksacks of even fit and healthy people, and so naturalists of the day took everything home to look up.
Since then, of course, grabbing the plants and butterflies you come across in the countryside has become not only un-PC but in many cases illegal.
Happily, though, the size of nature books has shrunk over the years to make them easy to tuck into a pocket,
and some of them now download on to mobile phones.
But not this one. The Natural History Book weighs seven pounds, its 650 pages cram in illustrations and facts covering over 5,000 different species."I definitely would not advise anyone to carry it with them in the countryside," says Amy-Jane Beer, one of the book's contributing authors. "It's something to settle down with at home."
At that moment, as it happens, Amy-Jane is very much settled down at her home a short distance from River Derwent in North Yorkshire, with her first child due soon.
She is well known in Yorkshire mammal circles as one of the organisers of checks and surveys of dormice which have been reintroduced to some woodland north of Ripon, and also the so-far unsuccessful search for pine martens in dense forests around the North York Moors. Stumbling around in woods, closely examining bits of poo to see if offers a clue to a pine marten's territory, is something she hopes to be back doing next year.
With her one-time university tutor, Dr Pat Morris, Amy-Jane is responsible for the mammals section – the book's largest – although her own PhD is on sea urchins.
"I've always been drawn to mammals, which get the biggest chunk of the book."
The book is aimed at families, with the reading age pitched quite widely at seven to 14-year-olds, and must be one of the most colourful books on nature ever produced. The concept of the enormous tome may be Victorian but the pages contain gloriously 21st century state-of-the-art photography, backed up by an online quiz put together by Amy.
The subtitle, The Ultimate Visual Guide to Everything on Earth, shows the scope of its ambition. The publishers, says Amy-Jane, were keen to try something that hadn't been attempted before, even by the Victorians, which is squeezing all of the natural world – not just living things but also geology and fossils – into one book.
"I think it takes those lovely Victorian tomes to a new level."
These days, the term "natural history" is out of fashion and "biodiversity" is in.
"Biodiversity has become one of those key words," Amy-Jane says. "It came out of the Earth Summit in Rio nearly 20 years ago and it's sort of stuck.
"When I meet someone younger and I explain that I write about natural history they look puzzled and ask, 'History?' But when I reply 'wildlife' they say, 'oh yeah, animals and stuff, right.'
"Another way of looking at it is the book's a sort of a sweetshop for young people. It's a shop window on nature. You can look through it and window-shop on wildlife. Hopefully it will invite people into the natural world and make them want to find out more."
The Natural History Book: The Ultimate Visual Guide to Everything on Earth is published by Dorling Kindersley, 30.