Nature writer Richard Mabey: A neighbour of the wild
PUBLISHED: 11:29 12 November 2019
One of Britain's most influential nature writers, Richard Mabey discusses his latest book reflecting on five decades of writing and his enduring love for his home county of Hertfordshire
As one of Britain's most distinguished nature writers, Richard Mabey is recognised for a lifetime of close observation of our wildlife and plants and a celebration of the natural world's positive force. For five decades, the author and broadcaster has been a revolutionary, poetic voice in modern nature writing. From his celebration of foraging in his first book, 1972's Food for Free, through his expeditions in nature reclaiming the liminal spaces between urban and country (The Unofficial Countryside), to his search for ancient woodlands and studies of birds, he has explored new ways of thinking about nature and our relationship to it in the rapidly changing modern world.
Born and bred in Berkhamsted, with an enduring love of the nearby beech woods and hills of the Chilterns, Richard has written nearly 40 books, including the prize-winning Nature Cure, Gilbert White and Flora Britannica. Despite his prolific output he confesses he is anxious about the release of his latest book, a collection of his writings that charts the evolution of his ideas, called Turning the Boat for Home.
'I'm nervous releasing this book, compared to anything else I have written before. It is always exciting and slightly nerve-wracking, as you never know what is going to happen. However, I am old enough now that I shouldn't be nervous!
'This book doesn't have an obvious subject. It is not about climate change or biodiversity, but instead it focuses on many different ways of how I have looked at the world. The book is very interesting for me; however, it might be less interesting for someone else,' he adds, laughing.
When it came to compiling the book, Richard says it helped that there were many pieces to choose from that are autobiographical.
'Over the years, I've written many fragments of memoir, about landscapes explored, fantasies made real, about roots and routes. But I never felt I was up to writing a full-blown autobiography. Partly it's a failure of memory, and of confidence.
'I had an idea of what I required to go into the book. I wanted to use 99 per cent of the writing that had been used in a book before, pieces I liked and felt worked for me.'
He sums up the approach in his prologue: 'Over the past two decades I have done a good deal of occasional writing - broadcast essays, introductions to other writers' work, seasonal journals - which contain broadly autobiographical material. Often, they revisit episodes of exploration, or moments when ideas of books were born, and reassess them in terms of my current thoughts and beliefs. Turning the Boat for Home is a collection of these pieces, arranged so that a sketchy reflection on a life's work does emerge.'
He admits to an 'underlying note of loss and anger' running through the book. 'From shock at how the profusion of life that Richard Jefferies wrote about a century and a half ago has all but disappeared, to the continued poisoning of the barn owls by agricultural rodenticides. It is impossible to write about nature in the 21st century free of the corrosive shadows of climate change and mass extinction.'
The book is arranged in four sections, loosely by influence, echoing Richard's development as a writer. 'I have quite an active, ongoing memory and there were a lot of memories trapped there,' he says.
His favourite bits in the book? 'I of course can appreciate everything in the book,' he smiles. 'The Library as an Eco- System is perhaps the funniest and cleverest bit of writing and The Owl for Winter is very heartfelt. However, probably the most significant piece is The Green Language about Rachel Carson (author of Silent Spring) and (19th century English poet) John Clare'.
Originally a short article for the Mail on Sunday in 2010, The Owl for Winter is one of the many visionary pieces with beautiful and sometimes sad memories that refer to Hertfordshire, where this youthful 78-year-old lived for much of his life.
'One thing I yearned for was to have barn owls as my companions again, as they had been when I was young,' he explains. 'The memory of them beating past the poplar trees in the early spring - burnished golden wings against lime-green leaves in evening light - is one of few memories from my childhood I can summon up with absolute clarity. I didn't see another in the Chilterns for 30 years.'
Growing up in the county had a huge influence on Richard's life and work. It is here that began his love of, and wonder at, how each species 'invented itself and every one is perfect for its role and connected to all the others'.
He recalls, 'When I was quite small my family and I lived in a house on the edge of Berkhamsted. At the end of our garden was a gigantic abandoned landscaped park, which was known to be owned by novelist, Graham Greene's uncle.
'From the age of six until my mid-teens, I spent a lot of holidays in there with the neighbourhood gang, cooking and building camps - it was a generation of what children did in those days.
'I think it was an untutored admiration for nature at the time. I became to be tutored as a consequence of my older sister, who is eight years older than I, and was quite a naturalist herself. She took me to reservoirs and helped me to appreciate plants.'
Richard was formally educated at three independent schools in Berkhamsted and then went up to St Catherine's College at Oxford to read philosophy, politics and economics. After university, he went on to work as a lecturer in social studies at Dacorum College, Hemel Hempstead, then as a senior editor at Penguin Books.
After the success of his debut, in 1974, he became a full-time writer. His work, ranging across the British landscape, primarily focuses on the deep relations between nature and culture. Familiar to us now, in an age of man-made climate change and plastic pollution, it has been Richard, alongside other writers and friends such as Roger Deakin, Ronald Blythe and Kenneth Allsop, who have helped bring environmental awareness and concern into the mainstream. He feels now that a sense of 'neighbourliness' with the wild - an awareness that we are separated by technology but deeply connected by environment - may be the best model for our relationship with nature.
In 2002 Richard moved to Norfolk, and away from his beloved Chiltern beech woods, which he admits he misses dearly.
'What I really miss about Hertfordshire is the deep woodlands and hills, which Norfolk is not very good at providing. My sister and brother live in Tring, so I always have a place to go when visiting. However, going back can be tricky as I am a little creaky these days. It makes you think, did I make the right choice?'
From his deep roots in Hertfordshire to his current home in Norfolk, Richard's work continues to inspire, challenge and enable us to see nature with fresh eyes. After nearly 50 years of writing about nature he believes the power of language to move people to action may be 'our greatest ecological gift': 'The answer to the still present threat of a silent spring is for us to sing against the storm.'
Turning the Boat for Home: A life writing about nature is out now, priced £18.99 in hardback
Essential Mabey milestones to read
- The Cabaret of Plant: Botany and the Imagination (2015)
Exploring plant species which have challenged our imaginations, awoken that clichéd but real human emotion of wonder, and upturned our ideas about history, science, beauty and belief.
- Flora Britannica (1996)
This award-winning book is a definite guide to wild flowers, plants and trees. It covers the native and naturalised plants of England, Scotland and Wales, and, while full of fascinating history, is topical and modern. Also described as a 'Domesday Book of the popular culture of British plants.'
- Weeds: In Defense of Nature's Most Unloved Plants (2012)
'One persons weed is another's beauty.' Weaving together the insights of botanists, gardeners, artists and poets with his own life-long fascination, Richard examines how we have tried to define them, explain their persistence, and draw moral lessons from them.
- Gilbert White (1977)
Winner of the Whitbread Biography Prize. More than any other writer Gilbert White (1720-93) has shaped the relationship between man and nature. His precise, scrupulously honest and unaffectedly witty
observations led him to interpret animals' behaviour in a unique manner. This is a collection of his letters to the explorer, naturalist Daines Barrington and the eminent zoologist Thomas Pennant.