This book has been written in an attempt to reverse a pernicious trend started in 1965 by the Duke of Edinburgh, when he leant his name to the publication of Keble Marin's Concise British Flora.
I am sorry to start like this. I realise it is more normal to establish the credentials of a nature book with a preface by a member of the Royal Family, rather than an attack on one, but it had to be done sooner or later. The plain fact of the matter is that Keble Martin's book, with it's 1,480 coloured drawings of wild flowers, caught the public fancy and started a leisurely stampede of nature guides which became more and more detailed, more and more comprehensive. But they also, and this is the vital point, made nature harder and harder to identify.
If, for instance, you find a yellow flower which looks like a cross between a dandelion and a coltsfoot, you can turn to Keble Martin for help and browse through the pages devoted to what botanists call the Compositae, or what you and I would call yellow flowers which look like something between a dandelion and a coltsfoot. There you will find a picture of your yellow flower. In fact, you will find fifteen pictures, all virtually identical, and all called Hieracium.
While frowning over these yellow look-alikes, you will find your eye caught by Mr Keble Martin's recommendation that you buy Mr HW Pugsley's book on the Hieracia. "Mr Pugsley has given us a clear picture of the genus with descriptions of 260 species. The following notes are only abbreviated extracts… together with short descriptions of 23 sample species." In other words, there are not fifteen flowers doing a Mike Yarwood on each other, there are two hundred and sixty trying to fool you.
Shaken, you come to the realisation that not only are you never going to identify your yellow flower, but that you have blundered into a world where the author is apologising for presenting only fifteen out of a possible 260 nearly identical flowers. It is my contention that Keble Martin should have expressed remorse for having presented as many as fifteen, and for not giving an English name to any of them.He should have abjectly apologised for calling his book Concise; all he meant by that was, concise compared to Mr Pugsley who devoted one book to one flower. To the rest of us there was nothing concise about his voluminous book of drawings, all of which slide imperceptibly from one to another. Nor is there anything concise about the flood of books which have followed Keble Martin, with or without endorsements by Prince Philip.
That botanists feel nagging guilt about this wholesale confusion of the public is shown by a quick reference to Collins's The Wild Flowers of Britain and Northern Europe which came out in 1974. Turn to the pages of yellow flowers and you will find this: "Hawkweeds, Hieracium. An exceptionally variable and difficult group, with some hundreds of microspecies. Here only four major groupings can be illustrated."
Well, this is better. The authors have softened enough to give the plant an English name. They have reduced the number of look-alikes to four from fifteen. And they have even hinted at an apology for the whole thing being difficult. A move in the right direction. But a move so small and grudging that it can hardly comfort all those readers wandering through the British countryside, a book in their left hand, a flower in their right hand, and a look of unhappy baffled terror on their faces.
What is needed to reverse the damage of nearly twenty years, started in an unholy alliance of Church and Crown by the Rev. Keble Martin and Prince Phillip, is something drastic, something explosive and revolutionary. Which brings us to this book. Nature Made Ridiculously Simple is based on the following principles, which are revolutionary only because they depend on common sense, not science.
People like to identify things.
It is possible to identify anything.
Identification is made easier not by offering more choice of models, but less choice.
No part of nature should ever be divided into more than ten species.
There is a great thirst among the public for a book that will leave them feeling happy, not confused by profusion. People are unhappy today because they have too much freedom, in the words of Quentin Crisp. (Admittedly, he wasn't thinking of nature study. In fact, nature is not his thing. He once said to me: 'As an art class model, I have a prejudice against still life of any kind. You see, it poses for free.')
That is why The Country Diary of an Edwardian Lady was so wildly popular. In trying to explain its success people have generally been baffled. It couldn't have been the rather insipid verse she copied out, nor her banal observations of the local weather, nor even the attractive brown pages; suitable though they are for recycling into diaries, carrier bags, memo pads and so on, brown pages are not enough in themselves to create a best-seller.
No, what drew people to the book was that, quite by accident, it offered them a simplified guide to nature, a view of birds and flowers that they could respond to. The Edwardian Lady did not write: " This morning I sketched a thrush, one of the 340 main kinds of thrushes as described so well in Mr Pugsley's big book on thrushes." She wrote: "This morning I sketched a thrush." It isn't great English, but by God you can identify with it. And you can identify a thrush from it.
The idea for this book was also born curiously enough in 1965, the year Prince Phillip gave the royal assent. I was living in a small flat in London, with access to a garden. At the end of the garden there was a tall tree, with roundish leaves, which was not like any tree I knew. I bought a book full of trees. For much of the summer I compared my tree with the many trees in the book. None of them quite fitted, but the nearest to it seemed to be what they called a Robina Locusta, or a Pseudoacacia. 'It's a false acacia, actually,' I would tell friends.
Quite how false I found out in the autumn, when it proceeded to drop on the lawn a large number of walnuts.
Now, a botanist would sneer at me for confusing a walnut which has big leaves with a pseudoacacia, which does not. The point is that if the scale is not made clear, the leaves of both look the same sort of shape and have the same sort of arrangement. All I knew was that however good a tree book it was, there was something basically wrong with it.
I know now what was wrong with it. If offered me too much freedom, too much choice. At the very least it should have limited itself to a tree called "a pseudoacacia, or walnut."
This book, then, is for all those people who have ever been puzzled by a comprehensive guide to nature. It is for those people who want to know, not the Latin name of an English thing, but what to call it so that other people will know what they are talking about. It is for people who, up to now, have not dared even talk about nature.
It is for people like David Barlow, in fact. Being fellow-members of Instant Sunshine, we do a lot of driving and talking together (he drives, I talk), and on one of our journeys I discovered he was incapable of identifying any tree whatsoever. To make a start, I pointed out an elder tree with its bunches of flowers the size of Bath Olivers. He quickly learnt to identify it. We might have progressed further, except that he was so happy with the idea of knowing that flowering trees were elders, that to this day he believes there are two kinds of trees: elders, which flower, and non-elders, which do not.
Reducing all trees to two different species is a very advanced form of thinking, which I am not quite ready for and which, in addition, would not produce a very long book. So I would now like to restate my fourth principle.
No part of nature should ever be divided into more than ten species, but not less than ten either.
There are lots of nature guides that claim to be concise, but this one is different. It does not claim to be concise. It is concise.
Just how concise is shown by the fact that I intend this introduction to be the longest part of the book.
Nature Made Ridiculously Simple 1983