John Aitchison is one of these guys we marvel at from time to time; his name appears in the credits on, amongst others, Frozen Planet. He travels to far flung parts toting a mountain of camera equipment, and a battered old hide. He films wildlife, brilliantly.
In The Shark And The Albatross we find that he can write beautifully too, as he takes us with him to those distant parts. The front cover is a stunning shot, captured in the lens after endless patience, waiting, watching.
But it is the stories behind those shots, of being in those places, watching nothing much at all, that make this such a grand read. There are hot places too, as we follow the Yellowstone wolves, or ride elephants in the Bandhavgarh jungle looking for the remaining tigers.
The cold takes us to the far north, and to the deep south. In Svalbard the bears contend with the disappearing ice. In the isles around Antarctica we watch colonies of different penguins deal with the same issue. Then we head to the frozen continent itself, to the ice shelf, and the emperors.
Aitchison sets tough targets. He doesn’t want to see the beasts themselves. He wants to catch them hunting, being hunted; that first flight. He is at his best when there is nothing to see, when he listens, for hours on end, unable to move.
It is a business that means vast amounts of time away from the family, from those milestones we have with our children, and our elderly in their final years. One of the finest photos in the book was taken by son Rowan, and the story of how he got it is as inspiring as anything Rowan’s father achieved, as Scottish otters take their place with the elusive at the ends of the earth.
Here’s a few of Aitchison’s words, just to whet your appetite:
Cloud shadows. Water-dapple and dancing light. A strip of sans, blindingly white: an island made entirely of broken coral and shells, at my feet, the sea. This sea, the colour of glass, stacked layer upon layer: a clear and vivid green, like the eyes of a cat. There are seven squat bushes on the island, moulded by the salt wind and decorated, like low Christmas trees, with birds called noddies. They are terns, chocolate-coloured, evenly spaced, all facing the wind: the ever present wind.
It really is a wonderful read, and goes straight to the top of my 2016 list, where it may well remain. Now I need to find a space in the favoured bookcases, in the front room, rather than consign it to the nature shelf. It’s that good, and some of you know the quality of my nature shelf.