Richard Mabey on his new book, Turning the Boat for Home

PUBLISHED: 10:51 06 November 2019

Nature writer Richard Mabey will be attendance at the Stroud Book Festival (c) Elizabeth Orcutt

Nature writer Richard Mabey will be attendance at the Stroud Book Festival (c) Elizabeth Orcutt

Elizabeth Orcutt

Writer and journalist Richard Mabey has brought out a new collection of his work, spanning 50 years of documenting the natural world. Katie Jarvis spoke to him about Turning the Boat for Home: a life writing about nature

"Everything that happened there, from the rampant spread of holly to the way the wood brushed off the effect of the two great storms of October 1987 and January 1989, challenged the dominant cultural assumption that the natural world is intrinsically fragile, in need of constant care to survive. If anything, I felt the opposite, that the wood was looking after me."

Oh my goodness. Where to begin?

I could start with the 'Praying Beech' - a tree whose ('whose'? The human possessive feels simultaneously wrong and yet just right) two branch stubs clasped each other like hands. Once, when the rain fell in an apocalyptic burst, Richard Mabey watched its bark melt in front of his eyes. It was, of course, no stranger to extremes of weather: one summer past, the tree had been split by lightning, bees hunkering down in its newly-created hollows. Sometime later, a storm had toppled it, leaving fungi free to colonise its delicious surfaces: knobbly coral spots; dead man's fingers rising corpse-like from the tree's own rot; white porcelain tufts, like Royal Worcester plates awaiting a delicate slice of egg-yellow sponge.

And then the rain came, 'hammering drills of water at the already rotting trunk'. He watched, mesmerised, as the tree morphed into its next state: 'essence of beech dripped onto the woodland floor like the oil from an alchemist's still'.

Or perhaps I could quote from a piece he wrote back in 2012 for the Sunday Telegraph: The Unofficial Countryside. Here, Richard Mabey takes us away from cool woodland glades, orchid-strewn commons, and pools rippling with colours lapped directly from the sun. Instead, we're on a desolate stretch of road, where thundering JCBs are ripping through ancient earth-layers, piling up a cliff-face of sand on a new roundabout.

Except…

Except. The thing is this: it's not desolate at all. He sees a colony of 'opportunist' sand martins using the artificial bank to raise the next generation of chicks, with an insouciant disregard for streaming traffic and heavy machinery.

In his urban lunch-hours, Richard Mabey makes a point of visiting rubbish tips and scrapyards. Forests of buddleia await him; a kestrel emerges from a derelict Victorian school. Pigeons hitch Underground rides alongside weary commuters. And, rubbing shoulders with a Heathrow runway, a sewage farm has been adopted by migrant waders - greenshank, little stint, bobbing sandpiper.

But, no. My favourite - my mind-blowing, favourite - piece in this new collection (Turning the Boat for Home - five decades of nature-writing by Richard Mabey. Did I forget to mention what I'm quoting from?) is this.

It's a tantalisingly brief description of the findings of Australian plant scientist Monica Gagliano, from an experiment she devised in 2013. She took the plant Mimosa pudica - you know: the one that furls its feathery leaves at the merest hint of a touch - and dropped it from a six-inch height every five seconds. In fact, she took 56 of these plants and subjected them all to a schedule of drop-traumas.

To begin with, all the plants shut their leaves (and who can blame them?).

But - and get the import of this - some began to reopen after a few drops. And, by the end of the session, almost all were disregarding the drops. Yet, when they were shaken manually, their leaves closed immediately.

After a week, Gagliano tried this drop-test again, and the plants ignored it. So… really? Had they really remembered what they had learned? Had they taken on board the lesson that the drops were no threat to them?

'Bees, in analogous experiments, forget what they have learned in forty-eight hours.'

*************

Thanks for your message, Richard Mabey emails. Mobile reception is rubbish out here in the wilds, but maybe you could phone me on my land-line at 4pm one afternoon next week... I'm particular about timing as the landline is not in my work room.

At the end, under his signature, is the cryptic sentence, best wishes, and I dont enjoy phone is [sic]. I figure it's a mistake; but I can understand it if he doesn't enjoy phone interviews.

I'm sad, too, that I'm not there, in his Norfolk home, where he describes his library of books (one small bookcase devoted entirely to his beloved John Clare and Ronald Blythe) as a community of species living together in one place. A stoat once wandered in, explored his desk with a series of sniffs, then left, back out into the summer garden.

I love Turning the Boat for Home, I tell him. I've not - and I'll be honest here - done much nature-reading. So when he mentions names to me - Kathleen Jamie; Tim Dee - I make excited/shamefaced notes to myself ('Buy!' 'Read!') in the margin.

I love it for all sorts of reasons. Because it leaves me not with answers about nature, but with questions. It opens my mind to things I've never even thought of before! Are plants 'intelligent'? (Not 'conscious' lawns-scream-when-you-mow-them intelligent; but with their own different-but-equal IQ.)

It fills me with hope, when my recent thoughts about nature have been bleak.

And I relish the metaphors and vivid descriptions which, even when I'm sitting in a sterile office, bring peregrine falcons diving through my impenetrable walls to feast on fat pigeons, and turn my manmade carpet into a tangle of funnel-y-blue viper's-bugloss.

But what has it done for Richard Mabey, Turning the Boat for Home? What changes in his own writing has he seen, as he leafed through a half-century to pick his choice essays for this collection?

He thinks for a moment. (He's a lovely man: courteous, thoughtful, honest.)

"I suppose I started off with a fairly literal view of the world," he says. "But, quite early on, it became clear to me that there was much more going on than simply the picture I was seeing; that the natural world had an agenda of its own; that it was going to live out life, regardless of how we viewed it and how we used it; and, indeed, regardless of the fancy metaphors that we used."

He makes me laugh when he illustrates exactly what he means, via a description he once wrote of a barn owl flying over long grass. In the metaphor his mind reached for, the owl was winnowing; its wings beating the grass like a heavy farm machine.

Of course, it was doing nothing of the sort.

"If the owl was bashing the grass like a thresher bashes wheat, it would be a very hungry owl. It was a clear example of how I'd allowed my own visualisation of the scene, and the seduction of what appeared to be a fancy metaphor, to get in the way of trying to understand what's really going on."

He picked up on the realisation that the natural world has its own agenda very early on.

When he was writing Food for Free - his breakthrough book about foraging, first published in 72 and now a classic - he had already tumbled to it.

"I can remember times when I was out on the foreshore, in North Norfolk, looking at this very favourite plant - not just of mine but of anyone into foraging - marsh samphire, (which is now available in all good restaurants" he adds, in ironic tones); "looking at this great green lawn, emerging as the tide went out; realising the plant had a life of its own, which was nothing whatever to do with the fact that I enjoy eating it."

Modern nature writers often take liberties, he says, in pasting their own emotional states onto the outer world. Seeing it not as it is but through a veil of their own emotions.

He once had a "wonderful discussion" with the aforementioned Kathleen Jamie (Scottish poet, essayist, and professor of creative writing); she had her first book out in 2005, the same year Richard's Nature Cure - his startlingly beautiful book about suffering a nervous breakdown - was published.

"She said she believed the duty of writing about nature was for authors to be transparent - that is, the less the writer was visible and the more what he or she was writing about was visible, or experienceable, the better. And I disagreed with her. I said the feelings and the emotions of the people doing the writing are very important and very fascinating, as well."

They finally agreed that these two things had to be kept apart. "I don't mean a long way apart; but that one's opinions, feelings, the emotions that the outside world generates in you, are in you - they are not in the wood or the bird or whatever it is you're experiencing. I think that that is the lesson I have probably learned more about from putting these pieces together."

Something strikes me, as I read through this book.

It struck me as I read through others, too, such as the Frampton Flora. (Have you seen the book Richard wrote about them? Leafed through it? It's gorgeous.) The Frampton Flora is a collection of paintings, discovered in the attic of Frampton Court in Frampton-on-Severn in 1982. They'd been done in the 19th century by some eight women of the Clifford family, documenting - some in exquisite detail - the wild flowers they saw around them.

What struck me is this.

When those women sat with their easels amongst the flower-rich fields, wielding their brushes, the Cliffords were simply local painters. Now, of course - when you examine how disastrously many of these flowers have fared - those same Cliffords have unwittingly become documenters of catastrophic change.

And the same is true of documenters of nature in general. They're no longer simple chroniclers, entrancing us with shades of bluebell or the patterns of butterfly wings; they've assumed a different, potentially even sinister, role because of how the world is changing. How should Richard Mabey and his fellow writers respond to that?

Some people say that celebrating nature in the 21st century is wrong; misleading. That there's nothing to celebrate anymore.

He disagrees.

It is a work-in-progress, he admits, trying to find a voice that combines joyful description with a sense of outrage at the rate of loss. "But I think we underestimate the contribution that the natural world itself can make to healing what's going wrong. We have an assumption - I think, culturally - that nature is helpless; that it's a victim."

Richard Mabey's first-hand experience suggests otherwise.

"Along the east coast of England where I'm living, there have been experiments in trying to counteract rising sea-levels by building immense sea walls, which inevitably get battered down by storm-surge tides."

Instead, when the authorities knocked the walls down to let the sea in, the land began to form complicated salt-marsh communities all by itself: "I can't remember the exact figures but probably 10 times as absorbent of water than ordinary ploughed fields; a natural buffer-zone against the rising tide."

A bit of happiness from a threatened world.

Once, Richard says, he was devastated by a bad review in the Independent; "I think it's the only really bad review I've had in my life". A journalist sarcastically compared a collection of his journalism to sending out postcards from Hiroshima: too much inappropriate happiness.

"But, a year or so later, I thought: actually, I might do that - send a postcard from Hiroshima. Because what's happening there since the bomb has been quite remarkable. As with Chernobyl, there's been an extraordinary regrowth of nature and people in the city."

He's not saying everything is OK. Of course he's not. But I love that he's saying it might be.

"I would have thought," Richard Mabey says, "that sending a postcard from Hiroshima and saying, 'Hey! The Ginkgo tree has survived!' would not be a bad thing."

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