The battle lines seem more sharply drawn than ever. Traditionalists
march on London in an uneasy alliance of fox hunter and bus activist, fearful
of seeing the countryside reduced to commuter belt. On the other side GMO crops are destroyed, people die for trees and environmentalists fight to protect natural history: the seemingly irreplaceable at threat from the irreversible. The very essence of living no less.
Some lucidity would seem needed and with a cavalry cry here it is.
Within Richard Mabey’s selected writings 1974-1999 lie crisp, clear sanity.
In these 49 pieces by the acclaimed naturalist taken from BBC Wildlife
Magazine, the Independent and the Guardian and from introductions to various books he considers the difference between landscape and country.
Writing in the immediate aftermath of the hurricane in 1987
he was uniquely sanguine, pleading that trees be left to recover or
rot in situ citing the example of trees blown over beside Loch Lomond
in 1968 which carried on growing in a bizarre colony of diagonal trees.
That is the difference between landscape and nature. Nature manages quite
well on its own but not necessarily in the way we want. Nor does he think
we should underestimate the human part of landscape. He is no fan of
artificial wildernesses: ‘fossilisation is every bit as deathly as
obliteration’ he writes in the chapter on landscape.
Mabey shot to fame when his book on food for free was
published in 1972. In 1986 he won the Whitbread prize for his
book on Gilbert White and the presence of the 18th C naturalist
hangs heavy over his own writings. Like Mabey, White was a persistent
ambler, writing about what he saw and how he reacted to it: this is
as much autobiography as essay
For someone who writes about a subject that stirs up so
much feeling and for someone who writes with such knowledge and
passion, he is oddly hard to pin down. Here you can find the
traditionalist, the angry activist and the romantic. In the
piece on James Lovelock, the originator of Gaia, he projects a
sympathetic portrait of a man who took on the biological community
with his theory that the earth was a single self-regulating system,
and who was never forgiven for it. In it you will find the clearest
explanation of why rain forests are worth protecting. If anyone wants
an unsentimental explanation of why mankind is risking blowing its
brains out here it is.
Elsewhere are travel writings from the Burren, the
Camargue and Crete. Out of his natural habitat these seem less
successful but he shines in his art reviews, particularly in his
admiration for Andy Goldsworthy’s landscape sculptures, his ice
bridges, bone-boulders, windblown leaf sculptures and a snowball
melting to reveal an unseasonal daffodil. There are other gems:
‘Living in the Past’ is his wistful examination of the BBC’s
experiment from the 70s in which volunteers spent a year living
in a recreated Iron Age village. This is a generous book, a book
full of other things: passionate but not emotive
The collection is book-ended with two pieces that define
this book. The last is a piece on stewardship in which he describes
his purchase of a forest, whilst in the first piece, Spring Fever, he
writes of his fretful waiting for the first swift of the year and
with it the renewal of spring. His fear is that one year they and
it will not come. It is a theme that crops up often in his beautiful,
detailed, calm writing. The profound running hold that the seasons
have on him and us still runs deep.
Reviewed by Graham Dickson