To celebrate Richard Mabey’s 80th birthday, and to tie in with a new broadcast of the book as Radio 4 Book of the Week from tomorrow, Little Toller have announced a new, collectable hardback edition of the seminal ‘Nature Cure’, originally published in 2005 to great acclaim. Read Richard Mabey’s brand new foreword to the book below.
Nature Cure was one of the first books in a genre that the press came to label ‘the new nature writing’– memoirs in which the reflections of the observer were entwined with the observed details of the natural world. I can’t say it seemed that ‘new’ to me. It’s been a traditional mode in British (and American) nature writing, for more than two centuries, and one I’d used freely myself. But Nature Cure was something different, a compulsive, written-in-real-time account of a hectic rite of passage. In less than twelve months I’d recovered from a long spell of debilitating illness, left the family home in which I’d lived all my life, sold my beloved wood, moved into a hermit’s cell in a Norfolk farmhouse, fallen in love, and begun – for the first time – a shared life. And this jump-starting all happened in a radically new landscape. I’d roamed the Chilterns’ ancient beechwoods and chalk hills for half a century, and they’d moulded my being. Now I was adrift in a shape-shifting arena of immense skies and capricious wetlands. The water quickened everything: the urgent flocks of waders, the swell of peat underfoot, the transmutation of field to lake in winter floods, the very notion of a horizon. It seemed a world of limitless possibility. I went out wide-eyed each day ‘off the map and into the territory’, and came back to put it all down on my manual typewriter. I’m still exhilarated when I read my breathless accounts of those days, and relive the thrill of my mind and senses reawakening after two years of dormancy.
But I’m unsure now whether I should have called the memoir Nature Cure. Nature played a minor role in my recovery, which was chiefly the result of love and friendship – and of beginning to write again. The turning point was when my new partner Polly, with an extraordinary leap of insight, sat me down under a tree with a notebook and asked me to keep a diary while she was away. I did, and in a matter of weeks I’d reclaimed who I was: an unrepentant scribbler. Nature Cure is not so much an account of the now fashionable ‘nature therapy’ as a bildungsroman, a coming-of-age story written four decades later than usual. What I found as I came out of my illness was that, in my imagination, nature seemed to be ‘recovering’ too. It felt more resilient, mischievous, inventive, independent. That was the ‘cure’ of the title. Not the relief of my own misery, but the possibility of escape from our species’ neuroses with our arrogant beliefs that nature is there for our benefit, has no independent agency, and needs us for its very survival. I’m reminded that the idea of the book first surfaced in an article I wrote just after emigrating to Norfolk. It had the ridiculously pompous title, ‘Living as if nature really mattered’, and was a mish-mash of my emerging beliefs about other beings as equal neighbours, and the American Deep Ecology tracts I was devouring. But it made the point, and served as a kind of blueprint for the new life I was cobbling together.
So I have not changed the title, any more than I have tinkered with the text, which for better or worse is an authentic account of what was happening in that tumultuous year. As for the Waveney Valley, the location where the story is played out, we still live there, and witness its changing fortunes. The fens, which I’ve grown to love, thrive. Lost orchids have returned, ancient connections restored. But the ordinary countryside between is in a state of degeneration. After what seemed like a change in heart in the early years of the new millennium, agriculture is intensifying again. Ancient hedges are being grubbed out at a rate that rivals that in the bad old days of the 1970s. Grassland is being lost to paddocks and ill-informed tree-planting schemes. The hares and golden plover flocks and stubble sparrowhawks that I celebrated here have vanished. The chemical-driven collapse in insect populations is draining the villages of swifts and martins.
I’m not sure what kind of book Nature Cure would have been if the scale of these losses had been apparent back then. Less rhapsodic I’m sure. But not less personal. ‘New nature writing’ is now rightly regarded as a risible and obsolete coining. But the memoir form in which fellow beings also feature is a vital medium for asserting that we are all inextricably part of nature, and for exploring the paradox of bewitching beauty co-existing with existential threat. The challenge for all of us is to keep our prime focus on the natural world, in all its pains and ecstasies, and resist employing it as no more than a mirror for our own feelings.
Norfolk, June 2021
A few words from Little Toller on The Mabey Library:
When Little Toller Books started its publishing journey in 2008, Richard Mabey was among the very first authors we invited to help us re-issue the classics of nature writing and rural life in the British Isles. He suggested writing a new introduction to Richard Jefferies’ Wild Life in a Southern County, which, aged 12, was his first encounter with nature writing. ‘When I found my elder sister’s copy, I was mesmerised. Here were thoughts about how animals might think, and how landscapes made you feel.’
Shortly after working with Richard on Wild Life, we started discussing his own book, The Unofficial Countryside, which had fallen out of print. Although it was originally published in 1973, well ahead of its time and before either of the founders of Little Toller were even born, when Unofficial was reissued in 2010 it transformed Little Toller’s purpose and reach. The timing of the reissue also marked the beginnings of a wider resurgence in nature writing across the UK, and has remained in print with us ever since. But much more than demonstrating the appetite of the British book-reading public, Unofficial defined for us the truer meaning of ‘classic’ as something with enduring originality and relevance.
Over the last 50 years, regardless of where publishing fashions were at, Richard has remained committed and absolutely focussed on exploring the relationship between nature and culture, and his thinking in these books continues to inspire across the generations. This body of work continues to shape our publishing story, too, and during his eightieth year, the Mabey Library celebrates the depth and range of Richard’s writing life. It is also our way of thanking him for the support and nurture he has given Little Toller over the years.
We start the Mabey Library with Nature Cure, The Unofficial Countryside, Gilbert White and Beechcombings. All these books will be hardback, printed in Cornwall, and feature original artwork by Michael Kirkman. For the type, we have returned to Sabon, designed by the German-born typographer and designer Jan Tschichold, and which Little Toller used for all its early books. To find out more about the other titles in the Mabey Library, please get in touch with us.
You can order the new edition of ‘Nature Cure’ direct from Little Toller.
Richard Mabey reads from the book all week on Radio 4, starting tomorrow morning at 9:45. The programmes will be available here after broadcast.