Caught by the River

Definitely Mabey

Tim Dee | 19th March 2020

Tim Dee extolls the loveliness of Turning the Boat for Home: A life writing about nature, a collection of the writings of Richard Mabey.

Richard Mabey has been writing about nature for almost fifty years. Food for Free came out in 1972. It is still in print and pays, he has said, his pension. His second book was The Unofficial Countryside. The Common Ground followed that, and shortly after a biography of Gilbert White, then a cultural history of the nightingale, and then Flora Britannica, the first ever peoples’ botany. He published a memoir Nature Cure in 2005, then a book on the weather, another on weeds, and one on botany and the imagination. I have mentioned no more than half of his titles. To consider these alone and their subjects is tantamount to a definition of nature (modern British nature, at least) itself. You could say Richard Mabey has done nature for us (for me I am sure this is the case, for all of us, I would venture). He invented modern nature writing; it is as simple as that. But, over and again, he has also shown me (all of us, etc.), what I think and feel about nature, how it occurs to me; it is also as simple, or a rich and entangled (it could be both), as that. It is a very lovable inheritance.  

“We all came out of Gogol’s ‘Overcoat’” is a well-known saying in Russian literature, often attributed to Dostoyevsky. ‘The Overcoat’ was a short story as well as an ample, deep-pocketed, weather-proofed garment. The phrase suggests, wrote Alex de Jonge in 1974, ‘not only that Gogol was the great source of the Russian novel but that his works lent themselves to a wide enough range of interpretations for his overcoat to shelter, comfortably, future Turgenevs, Chekhovs, Dostoyeskys, and Tolstoys.’ 

Let me say, then, that we all came out of Richard Mabey’s anorak. Or the earth-coloured smock, which I’ve seen him wear, or a soft deer-toned suede jacket, likewise. I’m fed up with arguments about what is or should be nature-writing, but if there any ground truth (spring-source or tap-root) in the modern form, it is to be found in Richard Mabey. Not in his smock, of course, but in his books and in his attention to life and in his marvellous wording-up of life as he reads it. He is something else than a natural historian. In his pages, there is always the observer as well as the observed. There is, to use Coleridge’s coinages, both outseeing and inseeing. Or, to be more fancy, there is both ontology and epistemology: another living thing is seen, or smelt, or heard, or tasted, and then a recorded is made of what we, as living things, make of it.    

There have been far too few reviews of this new book of Richard’s and I would like to bring your attention to it. It has a somewhat valedictory title (Richard and his partner Polly keep an excellent Mr Toad-ish boat on the Norfolk Broads), and poorly reproduced artwork on its cover, but Turning the Boat for Home is as good as any of his older books or previous collections of writings. As good and, I would say, as required. His writing is always lit with the light of new seeing. He’s already worried about the subjects and issues that trouble us now; he’s already wondered and marvelled at what continues to switch us on. 

Wrapped in a Tunnicliffe kingfisher, the book is an anthology of pieces (revised in some cases and all newly threaded together with a valuable and refreshing linking text) written between 1987 and 2016. These essays, what Richard calls ‘short-order work’ (for newspapers and magazines, for book anthologies and reprints, for TV treatments, etc.) are mostly from the last decade. I knew some already, had cut some from their newspaper origins and folded them into his earlier books on my shelves, but several were new to me. All still seem fresh. Assembled, they make as good a book on modern nature as any I know.  

Above all, his sense of life growing together is the thing: us and the birds, the weeds and me, the wild within us and without. For the rest of this little puff let me simply quote from some of the pieces. These extracts indicate to me what a great and good thing Richard Mabey is for all of us. His words themselves – we all should make commonplace books of them – are always better than anything I could say about them. He has an uncanny ability at confirming in his readers something already understood but not, as yet, articulated. Some of what follows aren’t even his words but are his generous and enthusiastic gleanings and gatherings from others working the green fields of the commonwealth of nature. That is definitely Mabey too.

An opening chapter describes what nature-writing might be (and what Richard writes for sure) and how any such writing raises challenges: ‘finding empathy with non-human organisms; respecting their individuality and otherness while acknowledging that we are connected parts of the same biosphere; reconciling rhapsodic joy at what is there with the full knowledge that its existence is critically threatened.’ [from the Prologue]

An essay quotes Henry David Thoreau’s fantasy of what ‘natural’ writing would be like: ‘he would be a poet who could impress the winds and streams into his service, to speak for him[,] who nailed words to their primitive senses … who derived his words as often as he used them, – transplanted them to his page with the earth adhering to their roots; whose words were so true and fresh and natural that they would appear to expand like buds at the approach of spring.’ [from ‘Snowcat’]

Despite Thoreau, essay after essay shows that Richard Mabey knows that nature-writing is not (and could not) be the same as nature’s writing.  All of us make translations out of nature as we see it, and read it or write it. He loves the incidental stories that works of natural history might throw up like a New Naturalists volume on fungi: ‘A puffball was discovered under an oak tree during the war, so big that it was assumed to be a German secret weapon.’ But he’s sure that the books from which such stories are lifted say little ‘about the making of those observations – about the experience of witness, about the first-hand encounters with nature that are the original raw materials of art and life’. He’s also sure that we ‘need these insights now like never before.’ [from ‘A Very British Nature’]

It is these insights that have characterised all of Richard Mabey’s work. 

Gilbert White remains a foundational hero.  Mabey’s incidental writing about him has always been wonderfully loving and alive to the particular, even more so than his serious and fully paid-up biography. Through White, he writes of the value of the local and of being a ‘stationery man’ and ‘watching narrowly’ in a ‘green retreat’: ‘While Joseph Banks was exploring the other side of the globe, [White] was out with a lantern, counting earthworms on his back lawn.’ And he quotes a magnificent observation, by White himself, capturing his way of seeing and of knowing (that also seems to be Mabey’s too). Jean Blanchard’s balloon sailed over Selborne in 1784: ‘From the green bank at the SW end of my house saw a dark blue speck at a most prodigious height, dropping as it were from the sky, and hanging amidst the regions of the upper air, between the weather-cock of the tower and the top of the maypole … For in a few minutes it was over the maypole; and then over the Fox on my great parlour chimney; and then behind my great walnutt tree … To my eyes this vast balloon appeared no bigger than a large tea-urn … I was wonderfully struck at first with the phenomenon; and, like Milton’s “belated peasant”, felt my heart rebound with fear and joy at the same time. After a while I surveyed the machine with more composure, without that awe and concern for two of my fellow creatures, lost, in appearance in the boundless depths of the atmosphere! … At last, seeing with what steady composure they moved, I began to consider them as a group of Storks or Cranes intent on the business of emigration.’ [from ‘Some Key Stations in Gilbert White’s Life’] 

Another essay on a contemporary localist hero, Ronald Blythe, quotes him describing when a dragonfly landed on a hymnal that the church-going author of Akenfield was reading in his garden: ‘“The dragonfly’s wings are colourless and translucent, and I can read Binchester and Yattendon through them.”  Mabey, with modest perfection, adds: ‘The flesh becomes word.’ [from ‘Ronald Blythe’]

Lewis Thomas (author of The Lives of a Cell) is a third hero with his ‘unfashionable and inclusive optimism’: ‘Against the grain of the times, he shunned environmental doom and New Age waffle, and celebrated instead the tenacity of life and the way, specifically and allegorically, it all joined up.’ I think that pretty much describes our author too.  I remember Richard telling an audience once that he thought there was a lot of hubris in the idea hatched by us humans of the Anthropocene. He also quotes Thomas (who is surely under-read today) on the Earth seen from space: ‘it has the organised, self-contained look of a live creature, full of information, marvellously skilled in handling the sun.’ [from ‘Cellmates’]

And, to finish, though everything I have quoted so far is from just the first quarter of a 270-page book, here is a moment described that I have had in mind since I first read it, and which made me want to write on the same theme, whilst knowing that Richard had already said almost all of what I, or anyone, could possibly want to say on the subject: the arrival of spring: ‘One May here {in the Chilterns}, I saw the actual moment that spring began, and felt for a moment like a witch-doctor whose spell had worked. There had been nearly two days of cool heavy rain and I had driven south beyond it. I sat on a log by the side of the stream and watched the cloud begin to lift. Small bands of swifts and martins appeared, drifting in from the south. Then – it seemed to happen in the space of a few seconds – the wind veered round to the south-east. It was like an oxygen mask being clamped to my face, so sudden that I looked at my watch for the time. It went down in my diary: “6 May: Spring quickening, 4 p.m. exactly.’  [from ‘Leaving Tracks’]


Richard Mabey’s Turning the Boat for Home is published by Chatto & Windus, and is available here. Tim Dee’s Greenery: Journeys in Springtime is published on 26th March by Cape. It is CBTR’s Book of the Month, and you can order a copy here.