Tim Dee celebrates the original bringer-together-of-strands as he approaches his eightieth year.
Richard Mabey and Polly Munro at home, June 2019. Picture by Tim Dee
On 20th February this year Richard Mabey turns 80 years old.
In the hall of green fame – the cathedral of a beech wood in fresh spring leaf, perhaps – the author of Food for Free and dozens of other books has long been happily installed as a natural treasure. That is certain, but might we not further honour him this year? In the olden days – remember them? – coins bearing his likeness might have been minted, or a new found spider named for him, or a medal struck of his Roman profile, or postage stamp produced, or a RM aet 80 Festschrift assembled, collecting encomia, friendly recollections, praise songs – all for the definitely deserving Mabey, the writer (above all, that – the writer) who, from the 1970s onwards, pretty much single-handedly invented – planted, grew and picked – what we must call modern nature writing. New beech-leaves, he has told us, amongst much else, a salad can make.
Nowadays, social media (and, it is to be hoped, some of the less personal and older media too) will make and mark the Mabey Birthday Moment. Underway on Twitter is a #MabeyMonth. Detectorists of various hues are out unearthing the natural treasure as they have found it – sharing recollections of hearing Richard talk, favoured passages from his work, memories of that work’s impact, photos of his books, photos of himself, pictures of sloe gin bottled à la Mabey, and so on.
These days there is some fretting about the term nature writing, about what it is (or should be) and about who does it (and who should). Few seem to actively relish the now problematic or, rather, problematized term. Perhaps there is something going on – thanks Groucho – about not wanting to join any club that would have you as a member. I don’t think Richard is so vexed (though he is certainly not complacent) but that might be because, for book after book in much of his life, there was only him at writing work in this field. (For sure, others were doing the biological science, and others were prosecuting radical green agendas in politics and philosophy, while still others were making eco-poetry – but next to no one else was drawing all these strands together or bringing them into focus through the lens of their own seeing and getting it down in words as Richard Mabey did and does). In any case, let it be said, and, surely, agreed, that without Richard Mabey there would have been no such thing at all as British nature writing.
Recall, if needed, just some of his achievements:
– He gave us foraging in Food for Free forty-plus years before it became a must-have lifestyle choice. (The book has remained in print since it first appeared and is, he says, his pension. The food might be free but – thanks be – he’s earned his crust.)
– He showed us in The Unofficial Countryside the wildlife of the dross-scape or edgeland ecotone, thirty-plus years before the rest of us began to notice the shrieking flights of ring-necked parakeets coming over the leylandii.
– He endorsed in Weeds, transgressive nature, non-binary bind-weed etc., and, accordingly, diversities of natural history and, therefore, of natural historians.
– He has revealed, again and again, in every book or essay or column, the truth of all ecosystems, the interconnectedness of life, the real community of Darwin’s tangled bank; we are excited today by fungal jamming and the wood wide web, Richard has been tuning into these frequencies – and sharing them – since the 1970s.
– He prescribed in Nature Cure what others have since called green medicine and earth mindfulness, and he did so long before your GP might have encouraged you to take a walk not a tablet in order to beat off the winter blues.
– He fostered the value, and values, in many books and also as a founder member of the Common Ground organisation, of cultural landscapes, and local distinctiveness, long before your (multinational) supermarket told you the name of the farmer who had grown your apples.
– He lived through – buying, managing, and giving away a wood in the Chilterns – and wrote brilliantly about land ownership, disinvestment, zero growth, and rewilding before any of those terms ricocheted around conservation ethics.
He has done all this and given us nothing less than modern nature. But, because he is who he is, by doing so he has also given us our human nature. I count myself very lucky to have been alive and able to read while Richard has been writing. And that writing itself is so good too, the most living and feeling writing that I can imagine about a person living and feeling in nature.
(He has also kept alive the writing of earlier nature writers, a diverse gang united by their independent-minded but diligent attention – shared with RM – to that which they witness of life. Among these unlikely radicals are Gilbert White, J.A. Baker, Kenneth Allsop, Richard Jefferies, and Margaret Mee).
Kathleen Jamie, a friend and great admirer of Richard’s books, spotted his approaching birthday. Mark Cocker, another friend, sometime collaborator and near neighbour of Richard, knew the same was coming. I didn’t but should have: I am a friend too and also wrote a profile of him for the BBC Wildlife magazine ten years ago for his 70th. Whatever, we all want to cheer for the man. For the man we know as Captain Mabey – the skipper who steers a mean electric cruiser through various Norfolk Broads with great (inland) seamanship. And who, as well, of course, has led the nature writing way for all of us.
Twitter – whatever human-fungal efflorescence it otherwise represents – has allowed the beginning of a Mabey Month of celebration. Add a hashtag to MabeyMonth and you can join the party. I write here hoping to further widen the field of friends of Richard – and put a bigger wave behind his boat. This is a birthday not a funeral, we haven’t come here to bury our man: Richard is very alive still, but why not say the nice things now that get said, elsewhere too often, only in memoriam.
Please add something to the Mabey Month if you can. If Twitter is anathema, or simply beyond you, why not send an email postcard to Caught by the River? All responses are welcome. The Captain himself is barely digital and doesn’t tweet. I’m working on communicating with him via nautical flags so he knows what is happening in his name. I’ll come back later in the month, I hope, to share with all some of the birthday cards as well as some Mabey words too. He does at least know this is happening and is very happy to be, er… so bombed, he thinks.
(By way of a start, and for a further sense of his range and his writing itself, you could look at a short piece on RM’s latest book, Turning the Boat for Home, here on CBTR.)
Happy Birthday Richard!