A version of this review first appeared on Normblog in 2006 as part of a Writer's Choice feature hosted by the late Professor Norman Geras.
A chance hearing of Radio 4’s Book of the Week first alerted me to this wise and compelling account of Mabey’s decline into depression, and re-emergence. This was in 2005, but in these days of coronavirus lockdown and climate emergency, the finding of solace in the natural world is ever more significant for those of us lucky enough to have gardens, parks or countryside at hand.
Mabey’s book strikes many chords with me, from page 2 where he describes the finding of a grounded swift. I had the same rare experience when one of my cats somehow caught one and brought it indoors through the cat-flap. Handling the bewildered but unharmed bird, I saw the perfection of its aeronautical design – strong, swept-back wings, wide gape, tough eyelids with bristly lashes. Like Mabey, I realised that the only way to return it to the air was to launch it like a paper aeroplane, and watched in amazed delight as it skimmed the grass before soaring high to rejoin the flock.
Swifts, epitomising English summer with their screaming flight, hold a special significance for Mabey, echoing Ted Hughes for whom their return each May proved that “the globe’s still working”. So it was a sure sign of the depression he’d sunk into that he lay in bed too lethargic to turn his head while the swifts whizzed and shrieked outside his window. Many writers will recognise the odd, bereft feeling of completing a book. For Mabey the work had been a massive one, Flora Britannica*, and the sense of loss was compounded by the death of his mother from Parkinson’s disease, through which he and his sister had shared the nursing.
His home for most of his life had been in his parents’ house in the Chilterns. There, he owned a piece of woodland, from which he banned the local hunt (hurrah!) while encouraging neighbours to wander and collect wood. Debilitated and purposeless in his illness, he was encouraged by friends – and a new lover - to resume his absorption in the natural world and in writing, the twin passions which had always sustained him. Acknowledging that he’d never really “fledged”, and that the process of maturation demanded a move, he decamped with three cats to the Norfolk Breckland, as lodgers in an isolated seventeenth-century farmhouse. Here, through a solitary but cathartic winter, he finds new bearings and rediscovers his connection with the land. He examines maps, he ponders over interesting names, he reflects on the shaping of the landscape by human intervention and the enclosure of the commons, he becomes fascinated by “westing” – what seems an instinctive alignment of buildings and field boundaries towards the setting sun.
This isn’t only the story, though, of Mabey’s illness and recovery. There are frequent digressions – into the effects of the Enclosures Act on Norfolk life and landscape, glaciation and land-forms, language and folklore, flora and fauna. The Northamptonshire poet John Clare, like the swifts, is present throughout. Mabey feels a strong affinity with Clare, “ecological minstrel”, not only because of Clare’s mental illness and shared habitats, including the same Northampton hospital, but for Clare’s deep empathy with wild creatures and his skill in capturing their “jizz” (the concise term used by birdwatchers).
He found little solace in mainstream environmentalism, seeing it as merely utilitarian, "based on enlightened self-interest: we want a healthy, unpolluted, species-rich ecosystem because our material future depends on it,” while we assume “the right, or the duty, to determine every other species’ share, too.” (Has he seen a change, I wonder, since publication of this book in 2005? Extinction Rebellion, Friends of the Earth and Greenpeace value the planet and its ecosystems for themselves, not solely for the benefits they bring to us. According to the organisation EcocideLaw, drawing on the work of the late Polly Higgins, "Ecocide is a crime against the Earth itself, not just against humans.")
Mabey sees our connection to the natural world as essential to our spiritual and physical well-being. In the worst slumps of depression, he had become, like the grounded swift, “the incomprehensible creature adrift in some insubstantial medium, out of kilter with the rest of creation. It didn’t occur to me at the time, but maybe that is the way our whole species is moving.” To read Nature Cure, at least, is to slow that progress. As well as the honesty of Mabey’s self-revelation and the range of his knowledge, it’s the quality of his prose – the Ruskin-like attentiveness to shifts of light, patterns of growth, and behaviour of even the most common bird - that makes this book so memorable.
Nature Cure is published by Vintage.
* Flora Britannica is another of my treasures, joined now by Birds Britannica (by Mark Crocker and Richard Mabey) which similarly combines natural history, folklore and anecdote.
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