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Highly Commended in the International Category of the 2015 BBC Wildlife Blogger Awards

Ocean Country: A Review

There is a skill to writing a really good book review. A couple of years ago I thought I would give it a try, and I started a Top Nature Reads page on my website. I reviewed a grand total of three books before I realised I was way out of my depth. Reading book reviews by others - works of art in their own right - confirmed my suspicions. So I've decided to 'hide' my review page for the time being, possibly forever. But I would like to share one of my efforts in this blog post, because the book it refers to is one of those stories that has the power to change its readers.

Ocean Country, by Liz Cunningham

For what I consider my first proper book review, it seems fitting that I should select Liz Cunningham’s Ocean Country. Please bear with me as I explain.

I am 43 years old. In my life I have read three books which profoundly affected my world view and my approach to life, and which did more than make me reflect and wonder: they spurred me to action.

The first was Gerald Durrell’s My Family and Other Animals. In my blog post A Hero For a Lifetime, I describe how, at age 13, it convinced me to dedicate my life to animals and their welfare. This is why I studied biology at university and have worked in wildlife conservation ever since.

The second, much later in life, was Richard Louv’s Last Child in the Woods: Saving Children from Nature Deficit Disorder. It inspired me to start Club NaturaNiños in early 2012, with the aim of encouraging families living in Cusco to spend more time outdoors, in the hope of helping in a small way towards shaping some of nature’s future ambassadors.

The third book, which I finished reading a couple of weeks ago and which I have not stopped thinking about since, is Ocean Country. I spent eight formative childhood years in or near an ocean: four of them living on a boat and sailing the North Atlantic, and four living in Dar-es-Salaam, on the coast of Tanzania, where I snorkelled and beach-combed innumerable weekend hours. Within the first chapter of Ocean Country, I was sharply reminded of those years and I knew this book was going to be an important one for me.

With a foreword by Carl Safina, Liz set out to write more than “a tragic tale of destruction and cultural blindness and greed”; she wanted “to empower people to do something positive.” And she has succeeded. Ocean Country chronicles her profoundly personal and emotional journey of discovery, through mangroves and coral reefs and islands and oceans, through physical trauma and pain, and through a series of crises, realisations and acceptances (“the anguish is a given”), to an inner place of hope and courage.

During some of her lowest moments, Liz writes “...too much of humanity was conducting itself like bacteria in a Petri dish, which eat up all their food and then die. My grief wasn’t grief anymore. It was excruciating sorrow morphing into a sensory fog... My sorrow was a consequence of connection, of being more a part of the whole of life. The world was so much more cruel and greedy than I’d ever fathomed.”

I too have experienced this swamping sorrow, as described in an August blog post In the Grand Scheme of Things. But Liz fights through the fog and surfaces like a float held underwater, with a surge of energy and optimism, into the bright sunlight. “This is how it’s going to be,” she writes. “It’s going to be person to person and creature to creature. About the possibilities in each moment. It’s going to be about taking care of each other.”

Liz writes with great humility and honesty and compassion, not as a professionally trained journalist but as ‘citizen Liz’, straight from the heart. This is not to take away from the fact that Ocean Country is beautifully and powerfully written. But Liz makes the scientific data and anecdotes personal; I connected with her story at a personal level.

Here’s a quote that resonated with me deeply: I have included it on my 100+ Nature Quotes page:

“The passion for rescue doesn’t calculate odds. Its risks are the ones that make life all the more worth living, risks with heart. The passion for rescue is a lived, breathing hope.”

We need to see, truly know, why we should care. The incalculable damage we are doing to the oceans “... is driven by greed, by indifference, and simply by not knowing what was happening. It is also driven by not knowing what to do.” For me, no other book or blog or poster or television programme has so clearly shown the way forward, “one step at a time.” It’s a question of attitude.

Liz also does not neglect to make concrete suggestions on how each of us can do our bit, by:

• Eating sustainable seafood, • Lowering your carbon footprint, • Making your voice heard, • Volunteering, • Reducing your plastic use, • Supporting conservation organisations.

With Ocean Country, I experienced “...the cognitive leap when the round peg fits in the round hole. An irreversible moment.” This is a passionate and inspiring and uplifting memoir: I urge you to read it. And then live life as if your voice matters.

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