Richard Mabey

Nature cure

Nearly two weeks out of London, and the countryside is beginning to have an effect on me.  I move more slowly, I notice birdsong and wildflowers more acutely, perhaps because there are fewer distractions imposed by other humans. It is restorative. But I could never give up London entirely. It is too quiet here, and once you have lived in a city for a long time you require a certain amount of noise and activity.  I will never be a country person, or for that matter, a pastoral poet. In a previous post, I came to the conclusion that I am an urban poet, perhaps by default, as I am uncomfortable with the idea of engaging with nature al la Alice Oswald or Ted Hughes. It is not who I am, not what I know. It seems easier to speak of the built environment, things created by humans for humans. The natural world is largely alien to me. Harriet Tarlo, the editor of the recent The Ground Aslant: An Anthology of Radical Nature Poetry has mentioned ‘the complexity of the relationship between writer, land and language.’ And Richard Mabey poses the question: ‘Isn’t a life of words the very antithesis of a life of nature?’

In Suffolk, the desire to describe every aspect of the landscape is overwhelming, because everything is visible at once. You can see a field in front of you, and the field beyond, and the field beyond that, stretching to the horizon. The sky is enormous and dramatic at all times, in all weathers. The curlew’s mournful cry, which I had never heard before I started coming here, is the sound I most equate with this part of the world.

So is there hope for me as a born-again pastoral poet? Possibly. Little sprigs of flowers and migrating birds are creeping into my poems. They will never completely replace the landscape of concrete and asphalt, but they mean something, they have a purpose. I am not entirely sure what it is yet, what metaphors they carry, apart from the obvious ones of beauty and tranquillity. I don’t really do “beauty” in my poems, not in the conventional sense, so I am waiting to see if new themes emerge from breathing in all this pure country air.

In the meantime, little pink frills of thrift and white spikes of saxifrage have appeared in the garden. At the very least, it must be Spring.

The image is a painting of Butley Creek by Kate Giles

Natural selection

In my garden in Stockwell I often see a pair of jays, not to mention our resident blackbird (with very distinctive white markings on his wings), blackcaps, robins, blue tits and an occasional wren. I’ve seen a heron fly over the house once, and a sparrow hawk twice. And last winter there was a spectacular invasion of redwings, perfectly at home in our uncommon snow. Beyond my garden is a low-rise estate, and beyond that, the Stockwell Road, which leads to Brixton. Not the most bucolic place, with its constant sirens and chicken take-away debris. But the birds don’t seem to mind, because they are birds, and as long as they can find enough to eat, they will stick around. As a city-dweller for the whole of my adult life, I still notice their presence, they still make an impact, and I am glad for their small music as I sit at my desk. City-dwellers are always in search of little patches of nature, parks and playgrounds, churchyards and canal towpaths, which make our concrete and tarmac existence more bearable. The whole rus in urbe thing.

I have to say that I never felt much of a longing for nature. The city has always been enough for me; as O’Hara says in ‘Meditations in an Emergency’, “I can’t even enjoy a blade of grass unless I know there’s a subway handy, or a record store or some other sign that people do not totally regret life.” Cities are easily navigable, and city-dwellers understand the politics of street and transport systems. We have a capacity for ugliness, for the burnt-out and uninhabitable. I like nothing better than a jaunt to some far-flung, forgotten corner of London with my friend Vici MacDonald (aka ‘Art Anorak’, a great connoisseur of urban ruin.

So as I skim pleasantly through anthologies of pastoral poems, in anticipation of two upcoming writing workshops looking at aspects of poetry and landscape, I wonder what has happened to me to make me even want to enjoy the blade of grass, let alone write about it (and encourage others to write about it). I have no ‘natural credentials’. I am not a gardener by trade, like Alice Oswald or Sarah Maguire. I do not know the names of plants and trees (although I am getting better with birds). I have the language to describe the urban experience, but I am ill-equipped to say much about flowers and fields. It doesn’t stop me from trying, sometimes in what feels to be a string of clichéd phrases. The built environment seems easier to sum up somehow, because I am part of it; the natural world operates in mystery.

However, I am beginning to realise that part of my problem is compartmentalisation. It is wrong of me to create a division between the urban and the rural. After all, aren’t the birds in my Stockwell garden part of the natural world? Richard Mabey, whose brilliant book The Unofficial Countryside has just been reprinted, says:

Our attitude towards nature is a strangely contradictory blend of romanticism and gloom. We imagine it to ‘belong’ in those watercolour landscapes where most of us would also like to live. If we are looking for wildlife we turn automatically towards the official countryside, towards the great set-pieces of forest and moor. If the truth is told, the needs of the natural world are more prosaic than this. A crack in the pavement is all a plant needs to put down roots.

Mabey’s project is to get us to embrace the lichens and weeds growing amidst the ruined buildings and between the railroad tracks, and therefore to see that we are not separate from nature. And that may make the (so-called urban) poet’s task less difficult when faced with that blade of grass.