Melissa Harrison assesses Kate Bradbury’s ‘The Bumblebee Flies Anyway: A year of gardening and (wild)life’, published last week by Bloomsbury.
When it comes to writing about the natural world it’s not hard to inspire despair in readers: simply take your pick from the available environmental data, most of which paints a picture of ongoing devastating loss. It’s easy to instigate guilt, too, by listing the ways we as individuals fail when it comes to countering that loss, or by recommending changes either too ambitious to get to grips with or so wholesale they would impact on our quality of life, thus making us – selfishly, no doubt – turn away. The more I read about nature the more I feel guilty, despairing and selfish, and the net effect is one of paralysis. I can’t be the only one who feels this way.
What’s harder to engender is positive, lasting behavioural change, for that requires the seeding of fragile and hard-to-come-by feelings like pleasure and hope. Gardening writer Kate Bradbury’s The Bumblebee Flies Anyway comes from a place of unarguable engagement with the losses we face, and blazes with anger at times, but her unquenchable love of even the tiniest and humblest plants and creatures makes her story sing – and I believe will nudge readers to change their habits, too: my little plot in Suffolk was always going to keep its huge ivy tod for sparrows, but will now retain a sunny patch of nettles, lots of garlic mustard for orange-tips, and plenty of pollen-rich ‘weeds’ in the lawn. Psychologists (and advertisers) know that connecting with another human being – not just in real life, but emotionally and imaginatively, through stories told via film or prose – is often what makes something you might have known somewhere at the back of your mind truly take hold.
Bradbury is profoundly attached to gardening and has been since she was a little girl growing up in the eighties in Solihull. I know the feeling she describes so well: the bone-deep need to be outdoors whenever possible, planting things and driving good dirt right up under your nails; the sense of stability and healing a day spent outdoors can bring. ‘When I don’t have a garden, I go mad,’ she writes. ‘In university halls I composted out of a window, grew herbs on communal stairwells…whenever the sun shone I would carry each of my sixteen house plants out of my housemate’s bedroom window onto the flat roof and we would hang out together…while my housemate worked on the computer, just inches away from me, on the wrong side of the wall.’ As an adult, she’s still haunted by memories of her childhood garden: a magical, un-recreatable Eden, as these first gardens are for many of us, however ordinary they may have been in real life.
In 2015 Bradbury moved from London to Hove, to a house with a tiny back yard that had been decked for thirty years. It’s north-facing, desolate, a dead plot: not even the local sparrows land there. Laboriously, she unscrews the rotting wood and lets the light hit the soil; and then, over the course of a year, she brings it back to busy, riotous life – even digging a tiny pond. But this isn’t gardening from glossy magazines, all strimmed edges and slate chippings and exotics in fancy pots. Rather than the anthropocentrism inherent in many (most?) planting schemes, it’s nature itself she’s after – in particular, her beloved bees of all kinds – so there’s lots of space for native wildflowers, or what the unenlightened might call weeds.
The way Bradbury writes about even the tiniest seedling or passing insect is inspiring, because her engagement with them is childlike in the most valuable and profound sense of the word: she treats living things as individuals, rather than species or products or things. This emotionally connected way of relating to the natural world is both our greatest loss as adults, and our best hope. The result is a book full of love, joy and a sense of deep reward: one that makes you itch to get outside and become as good a custodian yourself.
The Bumblebee Flies Anyway is threaded through with memoir, as Bradbury’s efforts to put down literal and metaphorical roots send her back to her childhood, the wellspring of her love of the natural world. There’s sadness here at losses both personal and environmental, and a family illness threatens to overwhelm her just as her hope and belief in the ultimate value of what she’s doing is almost overwhelmed by despair at the paving-over of gardens nearby. But the personal strand never feels inauthentic or tacked-on in the way that it often can in books about nature these days. It’s simply life, as we all must muddle through it – and allowing readers to see it creates a bond with Bradbury, the effect of which is to strengthen our sense of connection to the wider project of the garden itself.
There are many books out there on wildlife gardening, and some are excellent. This one isn’t a how-to guide, or in fact instructive at all, but succeeds at a deeper level: modelling and engendering behavioural change, through deep-felt love, fragile hope and small moments of joy. There’s an estimated 10 million acres in Britain currently given over to private gardens. That’s a lot of land that could be wildlife-rich if we all took a leaf from Bradbury’s book; in fact, it’s more than all the country’s nature reserves combined.
Few of us are in a position to turn around the global picture, but with a little motivation we can all turn our home patches into rich habitats rather than parking spaces, ‘outdoor rooms’ or mere horticultural dioramas – and like Bradbury, create for ourselves a profoundly rewarding connection to nature, too.
The Bumblebee Flies Anyway (Bloomsbury, hardback, 256 pages) is out now and available here.
Melissa Harrison’s new novel All Among the Barley is due out on August 23.