After a year of virus-plagued humans observing with new wonder how wildlife boosts our wellbeing, the conclusion of the man who invented the burgeoning “nature cure” genre is unexpected. Nature, declares Richard Mabey, makes us ill. He was first told this by his fellow writer, Kathleen Jamie, and it made Mabey “think very much more deeply about the whole panoply of what ‘nature’ means,” he says. “Bacteria and viruses and man-eating tigers and predatory Asian hornets are also all part of nature. At times we need to defend ourselves from ‘nature’ but also row back from the value judgments we make about certain parts of the natural world, because we need the whole thing kicking together if the biosphere, including us, is to survive.”
Mabey, who has just celebrated his 80th birthday, has been a pioneer in British nature writing and environmental thinking for five decades. He is not a contrarian but has consistently interrogated and challenged prevailing patterns of thinking in more than 30 books (so many it is difficult to conclusively count them). Nature is a “criminally abused word”, he says. And he criticises the simplicity of the assumption that we have been reconnecting with nature in the wake of the pandemic’s lockdowns. “I’m particularly aroused by this term ‘reconnection with nature’, given that we are all every moment every breath of our lives very connected with it. I hate to say any words in support of our great leader but at one point during lockdown Boris Johnson used the phrase: ‘We must be humble in the face of nature.’ He was thereby putting the pandemic on the side of nature. As we hopefully mature in our understandings of our relationship with the world outside, we have to move towards a much more broad-based concept of what nature means. When people say: ‘Yeah! Go out and reconnect with nature! Nature makes you well!’ in fact they are just talking about a cherry-picked selection – trees and birds and flowers.”
While many of us have spent the pandemic worrying hugely, Mabey, who describes himself as “naturally a really quite anxious person” has been mentally untroubled by coronavirus. Instead, locked down at his home with his partner, Polly, on the Norfolk-Suffolk border, he’s been thinking. Now, invigorated by #Mabeymonth on Twitter – an appreciation devised by fellow writers Tim Dee, Mark Cocker and Jamie – Mabey is ready to start the book of big ideas he regrets not writing sooner.
In an era when bookshops are thickly forested with new nature tomes, it is easy to forget that for decades Mabey, in Britain, was a lone voice in an empty field. He grew up, a “hedge kid” roaming the countryside around Berkhamsted, for whom nature was a refuge from a bed-ridden, alcoholic father who ruled the household as if by remote control. Writing has always been how Mabey makes sense of things, and keeps well. When his father died, “I thought that I really wouldn’t care less whether he was alive or not”, but two hours after the funeral Mabey “sat in my room and just wrote pages and pages on blue Basildon Bond paper about what I’d been feeling. I couldn’t have gone through the rest of the day if I hadn’t done that.”
In the early 1960s, Mabey joined the political protests of the day – arrested during street demos, against the Cuban missile crisis – but it was visiting the Norfolk coast where he encountered traditional foraging for food such as samphire that moved him to write Food for Free (1972), which pre-dates Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall’s advocacy of wild food by three decades. Mabey, who cites Rachel Carson’s Silent Springand Annie Dillard’s Pilgrim at Tinker Creek as his key texts, has been consistently trailblazing. His second book, The Unofficial Countryside (1973), is a memorable celebration of wildlife in rubbish dumps and waste ground that foreshadowed other British writers’ interest in “edgelands” by 40 years. His biography of Gilbert White (1986) and epic cultural history of plants, Flora Britannica (1996), are key texts in the revival of nature writing in Britain. More recently, Mabey’s Nature Cure (2005), detailing his mental breakdown after finishing Flora Britannica and the succour he found by belatedly leaving behind his childhood home in the Chilterns for the bleaker south Norfolk countryside, heralded that genre of nature misery memoir.