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Selected Writings 1974-1999
Richard Mabey

Selected Writings 1974-1999
Richard Mabey
Chatto & Windus
London 1999

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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


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