The Unofficial Countryside spans the four seasons and is Richard Mabey’s account of wildlife within and around London. Published in 1973 it was ahead of its time with its focus on urban nature, something that is still relatively under-represented by the nature writing canon. In each chapter Mabey visits various liminal or marginalised spaces – such as sewage works, rubbish dumps, and gravel works – as well as the more acceptable faces of urban nature – such as parks, gardens, and golf courses – and writes about the plant, bird, and animal life that he encounters there. These encounters are beautifully written in simple and direct prose and are touched throughout with humour and insight. There is also a sense of wonder in Mabey’s writing, as though these encounters are taking him by suprise. For instance, at one point Mabey talks about a wagtail that he sees from a coach window as he passes the verge on which it is sat. Everyday he watches it with his face pressed against London Transport glass. This image of Mabey with his face up against the window imparts a sense of child-like wonder. Mabey doesn’t simply observe and jot down, he is enthralled by the wildlife and plantlife he sees. However, what is perhaps the most remarkable feature of Mabey’s writing is the positive philosophy he adopts towards urban nature. He summarises this philosophy early on in the book:
The last thing I want to do is to excuse the dereliction, the shoddiness and the sheer wastefulness of much of our urban landscape…Discovering that the natural world is indifferent to at least the clutter and ugliness (but not usually the poisons) of our urban environments does not mean that we should be also. We should instead be trying to make our built-up areas more fruitful and life-giving for all their inhabitants…For it is nature’s fight back which is such an inspiration, her dogged and inventive survival in the face of all we deal out.
Anyone who writes about nature faces a dilemma: how to write about the destruction of the natural world without being overly pessimistic and yet not overlooking what has been destroyed or lost. I think it is a fine line to tread, but I think Mabey manages it. Whilst acknowledging the dereliction of our urban spaces, Mabey does not allow this to decend in to doom and gloom. Instead he sees a way forward, a way to create a more flourishing city, in the resilience of our urban wildlife. When we come to see this resilience we can also begin to think in a more positive manner about the seemingly inhospitable spaces around us and about our role in creating those spaces:
If the ability of wildlife to survive literally on our doorstep is remarkable, its persistence in the face of this ceaseless change is amazing. It is also, I find, amazingly cheering. For it is a bleak view to see this story as nothing more than one of survival, with Nature irrevocably opposed to Man, forever just holding on. Looked at more hopefully it is a story of co-existence, of how it is possible for the natural world to live alongside man, even amongst its grimiest eye sores.
Mabey makes a very good point here. It is all too easy to see human interaction with the land as necesarily a destruction of the natural order of things. However, we live here too and this is our habitat. If we don’t see a positive role for humans then we can’t hope to, as Mabey says, make this a story of co-existence. This also means looking beyond the official countryside (or indeed, looking closer to home, as the case may be):
Our attitude towards nature is a strangely contradictory blend of romanticism and gloom. We imagine it to ‘belong’ in those watercolour landscapes where most of us would also like to live. If we are looking for wildlife we turn automatically towards the official countryside, towards the great set-pieces of forest and moor. If the truth is told, the needs of the natural world are more prosaic than this. A crack in the pavement is all a plant needs to put down roots. An old-fashioned lamp-standard makes as good a nesting box for a tit as any hollow oak. Provided it is not actually contaminated there is scarcely a nook or cranny anywhere which does not provide the right living conditions for some plant or creature.
Mabey’s point about plants growing in cracks in the pavement reminded me of a quote by Wallace Stegner:
We simply need wild country available to us, even if we never do more than drive to its edge and look in. For it can be a means of reassuring ourselves of our sanity as creatures, a part of the geography of hope.
I think Stegner’s ‘geography of hope’ is a good answer to the question of why we need wild spaces, or even countryside, available to us. However, it is also relevant to Mabey because he sees this geography of hope not only in wild country but in our urban spaces too. Mabey’s geography of hope is the bramble that grows from a tossed out jar of jam, or his discovery in a rubbish dump of a veritable spice garden: Cumin, fenugreek, coriander, dill, fennel – you could have flavoured a whole Indian meal from this one dump. Mabey discovers this geography of hope when he is exploring a patch of soon-to-be-developed land along the edge of the Thames. He has just passed through a high-rise development and comes across a patch of bushes filled with 20,000 starlings. Hope is there in the orchids he discovers growing on a golf course. Mabey even manages to find something positive to say about rats. The book also finishes on a hopefully note. Mabey is taking a walk along the pits of the Colne Valley, it is March and all around him is an abundance of birds responding to the immemorial biochemical changes sparked off by the light and warmth and hurling themselves into their courtship displays:
At times like this I would find in myself an affection for those grubby landscapes that I could never have predicted and would have been hard put to excuse. Visually, they were without exception ugly. Although the healing processes of natural growth were everywhere in evidence (they were what I had been looking at the whole year), each one of these habitats represented an assault upon some green country. They had none of the restful predictability of ancient countryside…Yet it is the disorder and incongruity that I find so exciting and irresistible.
There is a symmetry between the birds hurling themselves about and the disorder and incongruity of the city. There is a liveliness to it that the ‘watercolour landscapes’ lack and which makes them seem almost insipid by contrast. Again Mabey is at once recognising the grubbiness and disorder of the city and seeing something of value in this. A key part of Mabey’s sense of optimism is the humour that he injects in to the book, often with himself as the butt of the joke. For instance, when Mabey began carrying out the research for the book he initially planned to carry out a circular walk around London and so he sets off on the first ten-mile leg of his journey. Parts of the journey take him through shopping centres and suburban housing areas and he finds himself feeling a little out of place:
I had not anticipated how embarrassing it would be to wear a pair of binoculars in a busy town street. I could not raise them to my eyes without feeling sheepish and very slightly obscene. Would the constable ever believe that I was looking at a house martin’s nest under construction and not in at the typists’ powder room? In the end I worked out a technique whereby I carried the glasses in my hand, not round my neck, and flicked them quickly and nonchalantly to my eye as if I were taking a shufty at the weather.
It’s very rare that I actually laugh out loud at a book, but this scene had me laughing. I have to imagine he looked pretty absurd quickly flicking the binoculars to his eyes. Later on in the book he goes for a walk on Hampstead Heath and manages to get lost and buried up to his knees in mud. Having recovered and found his way back to civilisation he goes to a pub for a pint:
…the broiling July sun started to make me smell like a sewerworker. I retired to a dark corner of the pub in some embarrassment – which was just as well, since as anyone who has ever had their feet caked with bog mud will have predicted, itches started of such devastation that I had to rip my shoes and socks off and dry my feet with pages torn from my notebook. And burning a hole on my lap were those damned binoculars again.
I like the fact that Mabey isn’t afraid to put scenes like these in his book. They make him seem more relateable and it feels true to my own experiences of trying to write about nature. I don’t stride around the countryside, climbing mountains and swimming in lakes. I usually get muddy and feel awkward, especially when trying to observe nature in the city. By including these humourous scenes Mabey becomes a real person for the reader, and this in turn makes observing nature seem like a more accessible activity. He makes it seem like the sort of thing anyone could do and this chimes well with his belief that we can effect positive changes in our cities.
I’d also like to mention the edition of The Unofficial Countryside that I was reading. It was published by Little Toller Books in 2010 and is part of a series of nature classics. The book itself is lovely. It has thick paper and a really nice typeface. But perhaps best of all it is beautifully illustrated by Mary Newcomb, with a black and white illustration at the start of each chapter and a lovely colour illustration on the cover. It’s not often that the design and printing of a book stands out to me and I’d happily read any old cheap edition, but this edition gave me a sense that real thought had gone in to it. I know I always say this, but I really would recommend this book. It is funny, beautifully written, eye-opening and a joy to read.