The twenty-first of March, 2011: Listen. Look up.

I wouldn’t argue with the general consensus that Richard Mabey is Britain’s greatest living natural history writer (indeed, I can’t think that we’ve got many better dead ones). Charles Waterton, in the 19th century, bemoaned the gentleman naturalists who spent “more time in books than in bogs” – but for me, Mabey’s appeal (though he’s certainly done his time in bogs) is his unabashed bookishness.

In Nature Cure (Chatto & Windus, 2005), Mabey is compelling whether he’s quoting John Clare (When in round oaks narrow lane as the south got black again/We sought the hollow ash that was shelter from the rain/With our pockets full of peas we had stolen from the grain) – or describing his restoration of a grounded swift to flight –

We picked it up, carried it to the window and hurled it out… Whatever its emotions, they were overtaken by instinct and natural bravura. It went into a dowanward slide, winnowing furiously, skimmed so close to the road that we all gasped, and then flew up strongly towards the south-east. It would not touch down again until it came back to breed in two summers’ time. How many miles is that? How many wing-beats?

(I had the same experience myself, once, in a city square in Urbino) – or deploying the sort of rich dialect vocabulary that comes more naturally to naturalists than to anyone else (the pages are littered with yaffles, grups, molly-blobs, setterworts) – or providing slightly more detail than would normally be felt desirable regarding his acute bladder disorder (‘Still I seeped. My catheter bag filled inexorably with fluid the colour of stewed plums’).

I sympathise with Mabey and I don’t object to his sentimentalism (‘And worse, I am sentimental. I talk to birds… I have a drink for the first swallow, keep a tape somewhere of a nightingale I recorded in thick fog to play down the phone to a far-away girlfriend’) – in fact, to a large extent I share it. Where he goes further than I would is in taking his sentimentality seriously. You could call him a ‘soft’ Gaian.

I tend to take Werner Herzog’s view of nature. Mabey anthropomorphises his house-cats.


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