Caught by the River

Claxton: Field Notes from a Small Planet

30th October 2014


Mark Cocker; Claxton: Field Notes from a Small Planet

Jonathan Cape, hardcover, 256 pages
Review by Rob St.John

“In order to know it properly, a landscape requires routine and repetition.” In Claxton, Mark Cocker has selected 85 short pieces written about the landscape and wildlife of the titular Norfolk village, largely published in the Guardian, Eastern Daily Press and Birdwatch magazine between 2001 and 2012. The parish around Claxton (Cocker’s choice of biogeography is one of a number of subtle nods to Gilbert White) is flat, wet and biodiverse. These slow-strolling minimals – observances of changing seasons and chance encounters which are here one day, gone the next – form a “book about place, a celebration of the way in which a particular location can give shape and meaning to one’s whole outlook.”

Cocker’s keen eye for the subtle, the unusual and the overlooked in the landscape is evident throughout, and as he writes in the introduction, “my hope with this book is that readers might be inspired to look more closely at their own immediate surroundings, for in many ways, there is little that is truly special about Claxton.” That said, there’s something pretty special about much of the writing in Claxton.

The pieces – documents of Cocker’s own routine and repetition, both in his experiences of the landscape and his own expressionistic writing style – are structured chronologically (in a way): the dates ticking onward whilst the years flit back and forth. The pieces are filled with a wonder at various compressions, interdependencies and shifts of scale in a landscape alive with connections. Owls are “truly the landscape distilled”, their survival reliant on foodwebs stretching all the way down to soil bacteria and nematodes. A flock of late summer swifts are “made from nothing but tiny invertebrates floating in the ether. A flock of thirty and everything about them – that noise, those scintillating movements, their feathers, those air-filled bones as light as glass – is a distillation of billions of insects.”

Cocker alternates his role between that of a semi-detached observer of these interdependent spectacles, and a fully immersed participant in it all. Some of the most rewarding pieces focus on Cocker’s sensory experiences of the landscape, where for example, when walking through thick undergrowth in midsummer he writes, “moving through the place feels at times like doing the breast stroke in green water.” As a reader used to Cocker’s jumps of scale and interconnections, you’re coaxed to understand the “green water” of nettles and grass around his knees as the same green water that soaks that wet woodland in winter. Once you start thinking in his interconnected way, it’s hard to stop.

Plants and animals – generally birds – are emblems of the making of the British landscape: often sound carriers for various histories, folklores and ecologies. A blackbird’s song reminds Cocker of the presence of German bombers over this landscape in the second world war, where “the engines’ drone trigger that sharp hysterical blackbird note, which always seems to sound like metal shards accumulating flake by flake on a metal floor.” The blackbird here is “part of our great European heritage and behind the actions and sounds of each one is our shared past.” Similarly, a mistle thrush song heard in early winter reminds Cocker that “this glorious motif has been passed on thrush to thrush since the retreat of ice…It is a song from long before the idea of England, older even than this island itself.”

For all that Cocker describes himself as unmusical (though given his taste in landscape music is The Necks and Gavin Bryars, this can hardly be the case), the writing about sound in Claxton is frequently evocative and original. A song thrush wakes him one March morning with “gutsy, clanging, joyous notes pouring out like freshly tempered shards of steel, the hot sparks flying wildly as they spin through the air.” (Again, metallic sonic metaphors for the thrush family…) Sound is the signature of an interdependent ecosystem, as Cocker posits, “since birdsong is the energy derived from sunlight and from landscape (soil, vegetation, insects etc) expressed simply as sound, perhaps you should think of those blackbirds as the self-delighting voice of Britain itself musing on the joys of spring.”

His poetic writing is sprung with a tightly wound economy, though some sentences occasionally run away with themselves, layering metaphor over metaphor in a seeming effort to sum up breathless experience. This occasional foray into floridness is pretty forgivable, to be fair, given that the function of the original newspaper nature diaries is largely to give a saturated burst of the natural world to readers browsing various diatribes and dour forecasts in the comment section. Similarly, there are metaphors and phrases which crop up over and again – there are a lot of ‘vast’ landscapes, and flocks of swans and geese are invariably ‘skeins’ – which may well have been shorn by an editor if this was presented as a continuous work. These are minor concerns, because really I can’t think of many better naturalists and writers than Cocker to provide such sharply observed glimpses of his landscape, which he knows (as, by the end of this book you do too) through routine and repetition.

Cocker’s strong and nuanced conservation ethic is one of the most rewarding themes to emerge from this collection. One strand of this is his emphasis on the value of reintroductions of species (such as the white-tailed eagle) to East Anglia. In an echo of Feral, George Monbiot’s recent treatise on rewilding (only perhaps without Monbiot’s heady midlife kayaking and spear-fishing adventures), Cocker describes how such reintroductions can revive the ‘wild’, not only in the landscape, but in us, “the restoration of eagles requires that we re-imagine the bird less as an icon of wilderness, and more as our near neighbour. In so doing we will recover something wild and precious in the landscape and also something important within ourselves.” For Cocker, the decline of wildlife in Britain has effects over and above its intrinsic loss. He repeatedly emphasises the extinction of experience, mystery, wonder and creativity in us all (perhaps even without knowing – the ‘shifting baseline’ syndrome) when the natural world around us is depleted and run aground into ever-tighter parcels of land and often-sterile nature reserves.

Some creatures recur throughout the book – peregrines, swallows, swifts, otters, St. Mark’s flies – the migratory ones often cropping up within a similar few days each year. It’s interesting to note that there’s little mention given to any changing patterns of nature over the decade of documentation, particularly to climate change. However, perhaps one of the values of Claxton – whether intentional or not – is to provide a baseline of the ecology of this landscape and its rhythms over a decade when the world’s environments continued to change apace. Accordingly, there is a comprehensive species list at the end of the book, containing of all the plants and animals Cocker has encountered in Claxton. The nomenclature is a poetic and fascinating thing in itself: a collection of Ghost moths, Common Stinkhorn, Chicken of the Woods and Horse-chestnut Leaf Miners amongst others.

For all that this book is about Cocker’s experience of the landscape, it contains very little detail about his life, or his moods and emotions past those immediately evoked by the natural world. In many ways this is refreshing, given that a good chunk of the current glut of new nature writing deals with the personal experience or journey of an author imposed on a backdrop of landscape. The tone here is far more knowledgeable, subtle and respectful than most. Cocker does give occasional – thankful – glimpses of the living he makes from the landscape, for example he goes to a patch of flooded alder woodland daily in the spring of 2009, “I told myself that I was going to look for woodcock… But perhaps what I’m really hunting for is words.”

In the final entry, from December 2007, Cocker goes to find a huge old oak tree – the “grand dame” – in Claxton: 350 years old, with a “wonderfully grotesque elephantine boll that is about eight metres in circumference.” This grand old oak grew up with the village, just a sapling when the “last wolves were being hounded from Scotland” and “great bustards [were] wandering the sandy flats of Breckland.” Again, Cocker’s vision is one of interdependence: of the jays, rooks, mice and squirrels that have lived in the tree and scattered its acorns for centuries (the acorns, perhaps appropriately, have all been eaten when Cocker attempts to find a few to plant in an effort to extend the oak’s lineage). Here too, in Claxton’s web of life sit Cocker and his family, as he describes in a touching final sentence, “because, via the alchemy of words and print, this grand old dame has just put food on our table.”

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More from Rob St. John on Caught by the River here