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.