Field guides – ideally pocket sized, well thumbed, perhaps ink-stained or pencil-marked – first became popular at the close of the nineteenth century. In 1895, Edward Step published Wayside and Woodland Blossoms: A Pocket Guide to British Wild-Flowers for the Country Rambler. This was the first of the Wayside and Woodland pocket guides and was illustrated lavishly with coloured plates of deep green foliage and hedgerow fruit. Over the next 85 years, many more volumes were produced on a range of subjects, from ferns and fungi to butterflies and beetles.
The overarching purpose of these books was accessibility – for use by the everyday traveller, they left room for folklore as well as information on habitats, variations and Latin names. Often they had patterned endpapers and were hard-backed for endurance. The first Wayside and Woodland guide documents the mysterious lives of the wood anemone, the sweet violet, the lesser periwinkle, the greater celandine, the lady’s smock and the shepherd’s purse, also quoting from Shakespeare and Ruskin along the way. There is something for almost anyone’s palate – these pocket guides might even help picnickers to locate needful ingredients for an impromptu meal – whether it be wild garlic or the St George’s mushroom.
Today, field guides still help map the nature in front of us, providing us with clues as to what to look out for; from the fringed footprint of a water shrew to the earthy mounds beside a badger’s sett or a glossy, striped feather in a hedgerow. The dormouse, for example, leaves a neat, round hole in the nut it has eaten, while the long-tailed field mouse is far less tidy. Years later we might find such a nutshell in a pocket, or a wildflower pressed between the leaves of a book, and we’ll travel again for a moment, back to that place where we first found it.
Spring is a time not only of nesting but of travelling, both physically and mentally. As the spring arrives, we feel ourselves waking from the dormant, chill months to the year ahead of us and the questions it might pose. Where might we travel, and what might we find along the way? The daylight lasts longer and time seems to slow, asking to be filled. The world outside becomes a more inviting place; our territory expands. Minds turn outwards, and feet soon follow.
While we take those first steps in the spirit of a journey, more dramatic migrations move around us. Black-headed gulls that feed in cities in the winter move in the spring to the moors and marshlands. Cuckoos which have flown down through central Europe to the south of Italy, before feeding up in advance of the crossing to Africa where they will stay for the winter, reverse the journey to return again to the British Isles in late March or April. All is in flux – roots spread to spring rain, sap rises in the trees, and we stir too. Exploring this new, old world, we make our own expeditions and peregrinations, returning home again to re-see the familiar in new light. Perhaps, this year, with a field guide in hand...
Words by Aimee Gasston
Illustrations by Mabel Emily Step, published in Wayside and Woodland Blossoms: A Pocket Guide to British Wild-Flowers for the Country Rambler. Published in 1895 by Frederick Warne & Co.