BBC Books, 2014
Reviewed by Veronica Cooper
This book is a collection of the columns which the author has contributed over the last twenty years to the BBC Wildlife Magazine.
The articles cover a wide range of subjects, including birds, animals, plants, water, the seasons, writers about nature, depictions of Nature in art, sculpture in the wild, Nature in the city, ecology and the future, plus a few columns from abroad. He talks of his background and writes at length about Nature writers who have influenced him. Mabey says that his writings are a personal reaction to and reflection on what he sees and what is happening. He is a writer who has suffered from deep depression and whose health and well-being are bound up very closely to an intimate relationship with the natural world. He is probably best known to older readers as the author of Food for Free, but he finds this a misleading connection, as gleaning for him is a celebration of Nature’s bounty, not a major source of food. He admits to spending a whole morning eating berries from the hedgerows and returning home still ready for a good meal.
Because the columns are a personal reaction, they are nearly all thought-provoking. He describes his move to a new but old house, and the dilemma about disturbing natural life that has been there for a very long time. He talks about the effect that humanity has had on wild life as well as climate, pointing out that this has been happening for as long as there have been people. The difference now is that we are aware that we can upset things. We can also redress the balance and he talks about regeneration of both the landscape and of various species of animal and bird.
There are some areas where Mabey obviously feels less than comfortable. He never sounds at ease when abroad or in the urban environment. When he points out that the Docklands development shuts out Nature rather than including what is there, his sense of alienation and disquiet is conveyed to the reader in a way that is almost physical.
He employs the same gift to convey atmosphere when watching the wildlife round his home area. He charts the seasons by the coming and going of different species, his excitement palpable when a bird for whom he has been waiting does arrive. The fact that the columns have been written over twenty years means that some topics have been revisited and changes and recurring patterns noted.
We hear a lot about the health benefits of spending time with Nature and he often speaks of beauty. Although there may be reference to the fine ecological balance, this is generally related to the need for humans to avoid upsetting it and destroying the planet. Mabey points out that Nature involves a lot of apparent cruelty, one species depending for its survival on eating another, harsh winter conditions ensuring that there are only as many of a particular animal or bird as an area can support. He talks of the anger felt by those who encourage birds into their gardens, only to find that the food they put out is eaten by bigger birds. He points out that the number of songbirds has risen and declined regularly and is dependent more on climatic conditions in Africa than on predators in the English garden. As he says, being a lover of Nature involves embracing the whole picture, death as well as life, pain as well as joy, wonder without sanitisation.