by Rob Cowen
Hutchinson, hardback, 352 pages
Reviewed by Ben Myers
Space will be the great commodity of the next century. Space in which to breathe, to reflect. Space in which to live externally – that is, looking up and down and all around and feeling part of an environment that you can carry home on your mud clotted shoes, dirt-flecked trousers and wire-ripped jacket. In your hair and under your fingernails. An environment you can touch and eat, burrow into, slip down, swim through and watch over, rather than existing in the internalised sphere of the digital world, that strange and alien young planet perpetually half-shadowed and blaring with white noise.
It’s too early to register the true, long-lasting sociological effects that the digital world is having upon human behavioural patterns but this much is certain: we have drifted away from our moorings. We are in unchartered waters and it is not looking good; we can trade millions of pounds but can’t light a fire. Worldwide, the environment – and many of its species – are in decline; happiness, health and welfare are increasingly reliant on financial or economic success and depression is reaching epidemic levels. You know all this.
So does Rob Cowen, who found for himself a space where others saw nothing but a hinterland, a place of inconsequence defined by pylons, litter, dog shit. Somewhere usually viewed at speed from passing trains or cars. Here in this liminal space on the edge of Harrogate, to where he and his wife had relocated from London, Cowen discovered a new realm in which to explore worlds both internal and external – and it is very much a realm, one given new life through heightened, lucid prose that drips with poetry, where the River Nidd “splits over a the weir like Brylcreem-parted black hair”. Ours is a world, he explains, “growing yet shrinking, connected yet isolated, all-knowing but without knowledge…all is speed and surface…..digging down deeper into an overlooked patch of ground, one that (in a global sense, at least) few people will ever know about and even fewer visit, felt like the antithesis to all of this.”
In Common Ground Cowen does what many other nature and travel writers have done before him – find a space and occupy it – but rarely has it been executed in such a boldly imaginative way. This is writing of the highest order and which, like the land he explores that is neither urban nor rural, often seems to exist between definitions, straddling as it does memoir, journalism and fiction simultaneously.
Cowen often writes as if from the subconscious, evoking those feelings many of us might experience when trailing a fox through the undergrowth or walking across a crust of morning snow or turning ourselves into statues in the crepuscular woodlands – those feelings for which words and language so often feel just beyond reach.
Words do not fail Cowen though, who uses innovative techniques to view this overgrown 129 hectare space from all angles. Rather than mundanely report his sightings of the aforementioned fox, he instead becomes it, dragging the reader down every railway siding, experiencing every scent on the breeze and stolen moment of sleep: “In his drowsiness, time past and present combine and soft, clawless paws clamber over his face. Blind liquid eyes push up to his. His fur stirs with the hot, sweet breath of pink mewing mouths. Then he is alone again. He dreams of root, burrow, earth and blood.” Through such prose we feel the fox’s hunger, experience the torturous heartbreak of a departing partner and we are right there when it becomes trapped in wire fencing (it’s significant that it is a man-made boundary that marks the downfall of this fleeting hero). It’s one of the most remarkable pieces of nature passages I’ve read in some time.
Another example: Cowen tackles that age-old English enigma of the hare by personifying him, giving him a name and an allegorical story. He even puts him in a Cafe Nero of all places. Here the creature is outsider, a hare-lipped feral man who has seen glorious days but now exists without a home on society’s very fringes. He is a creature that a changing England is leaving behind in its rush for progress and/or urbanisation.
In others scenes, the place – and writing – feels haunted, at one point Cowen briefly seeing “a human face in the shrubby ground foliage, a waist-height tangle of messy hair and earthy face staring out over the fields towards me. Somebody crouching.” This surely is the Green Man that has stalked the indigenous imagination for centuries. Rural England is clearly in the author’s bones – deep, rich and alive in prose that bubbles up from the fetid loam and, as in the work of, say, John Clare, William Wordsworth or DH Lawrence, takes pleasure in every microscopic, fecund detail.
Elsewhere we experience further time travel when Cowen crouches by an oak tree in a winter field, the tree a lightning rod to days gone by: “We’ve all been here before, sweaty, bent and hacking with hand scythe and sickle, cutting callous-forming avenues through whispering stems, reaping, rolling and stacking sheaf. For a moment I’m part of another union, a brief rare return to the earth for us landless masses”. It brings to mind David Gladwell’s elegiac and absorbing 1975 film Requiem For A Village, in which the layers of time are peeled back, where memory reveals more memory, suburban progress is heavily questioned and the hands of the dead literally push up through the soil in a moving climactic scene.
The breathless description of a deer hunt as seen from the perspective of the hunted creature meanwhile should rightfully have any red tunic-clad hunter questioning the senselessness of such a folly, and the juxtaposition between the telling of the stunted lifecycle of a mayfly and a teenage girl’s skunk-pungent, blissful outdoor tryst with her boyfriend is as unexpected as it is evocative.
Woven throughout Cowen’s forensic, fastidious, obsessive and microscopic accounts of the changing seasons and various species to be found in his edge-land is his own story – an escape from the city, financial and professional struggles and, perhaps most significantly, fatherhood. It’s a subject rarely tackled in today’s glut of nature writing and one which Cowen, an award-winning writer and journalist, deftly handles, learning as he goes along.
What makes this book special is the author’s total immersion in his subject. Reading this you expect him to be part-human and part….what? Bramble? Owl pellet? The nature writing renaissance is busy with such rural portraits, so many of them painted by literary tourists forever passing through, and currently with a dominance by Oxbridge graduates. While there is nothing intrinsically wrong with this – all education is to be encouraged and applauded – it surely presents a collective rural view through the narrowed lens of academia’s rarefied upper echelons, or by those who romanticise hardships. Where, for example, are the books by the land workers or those smallholders displaced by big business? What of the multi-generational dairy farmers being undercut on their milk yield by the supermarkets?
Cowen exists one step removed from the current nature writing world. He does not undertake exploratory weekend sorties and be back by his desk for Monday morning; we are with him as he sees his first baby scan, we are breathing the same sub-zero winter air. The space he becomes infatuated with only confirms what many of us already suspect: mankind’s long-term spiritual well-being may yet depend upon our relationship with such close environments – and when that environment is all glass and concrete, volume and detritus, so too our souls will be hardened and transparent, noisy and cluttered.
He does this by walking the Yorkshire woods. He watches, listens and explores. He’s an outlier, a Northern voice, a set of eyes on the soil, and Common Ground is his outstanding addition to – and expansion of – the canon.
Common Ground is in the Caught by the River shop now, priced £15.