A slightly longer version of this review first appeared on Normblog 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. Shortly afterwards a writer friend and I, by agreement, exchanged copies on our respective birthdays.
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 screamed 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” (to use the concise term coined by birdwatchers).
Mabey’s exile took place during the winter of 2002/3, with the Iraq war looming. Tony Blair’s case for invasion echoed, for Mabey, the worst aspects of man’s assumed position at the top of the natural hierarchy. The assumed rights of “head-prefect nations” are linked to Lewis Thomas’ observation that humans are still “walking bootshod over the open face of nature, subjugating and civilising it”. Mainstream environmentalism, as opposed to the Gaia-like philosophy Mabey prefers, “is unashamedly utilitarian and human-centred. It’s based on enlightened self-interest: we want a healthy, unpolluted, species-rich ecosystem because our material future depends on it,” but also we assume “the right, or the duty, to determine every other species’ share, too.”
The conventions of nature writing demand that personal experiences are not admitted, as if enjoyment of nature is a sideline or diversion from the real business of life. But our connection to the natural world, as Mabey sees it, is 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.
Perhaps the fear of losing drive and purpose is especially potent for writers, who must find their own motivation, their reason for sitting down to work each day, their urgent desire to make sense of the world in words. If that compulsion vanishes, what’s left? But, 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.
* 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.