Why birds and bees are our best neighbours

Why birds and bees are our best neighbours: Author reveals the beauty of our natural world

  • Richard Mabey explores our relationship with nature in a fascinating book
  • Britain’s foremost nature writer, first became interested in wildlife aged 12
  • He urges readers to reconnect with nature before it is too late 

NATURE

TURNING THE BOAT FOR HOME

By Richard Mabey (Chatto £18.99, 262pp) 

As a young man working in publishing, Richard Mabey would use his lunch hour to go for a walk, observing kestrels wheeling overhead, sand martins burrowing in a sandbank and the profusion of plants such as Canadian fleabane and Indian balsam.

Far from working in the depths of the countryside, his office was in a particularly dreary area on the outskirts of West London, ‘a hinterland of peeling warehouses and run-down gravel pits’.

Yet Mabey — a country boy — was thrilled by the urban wildlife: ‘The terns wafting over pits where the dredgers were still pulling up buckets of gravel, and great crested grebes nesting in floating car tyres.’

Richard Mabey explores our relationship with the natural world in a fascinating book, as he recounts spotting red kites (pictured) soaring over the motorway

This, he realised, was ‘another face of nature . . . canny, adaptive, at times positively bolshie’.

Mabey, who is now in his 70s, is Britain’s foremost nature writer, author of classics including Food For Free, Flora Britannica and an enchanting book about nightingales, Whistling In The Dark.

This collection of articles charts different points in his career and is, he vows, as close as he will ever come to writing a memoir.

In other words, don’t expect many personal revelations or high-flown prose about his innermost feelings, although he does touch briefly on the clinical depression from which he has suffered.

For all his reticence, the book contains tantalising glimpses into what makes Mabey tick.

An essay about walking harks back to his childhood in the chalky Chiltern hills, where he would tramp the same route again and again, always walking on the right side of the path and using the same shortcut every time.

‘I found something reassuring in keeping to my own tracks, a sense of holding the precarious world of adolescence together.’

His interest in the natural world was first fired at the age of 12, when he read the 1879 book Wild Life In A Southern County. In an essay about that book’s author, Richard Jefferies, Mabey writes that it ‘made me feel a little light-headed. Inside the book were meditations on how animals might think, and how landscapes make you feel’.

Along with this insight came the dismaying realisation that the world Jefferies described had vanished.

Mabey’s anger and frustration at the obliteration of so much of our flora and fauna pulses through the book.

‘It is impossible to write about nature in the 21st century free of the corrosive shadows of climate change and mass extinction,’ he writes bleakly.

Yet one of his strengths as a writer is that he still manages to delight in the world around him, even in the most unlikely surroundings.

In an essay called The Unofficial Countryside, he gleefully observes the London pigeons flying in and out of Tube trains and the greenshanks and sandpipers using a sewage farm as a substitute mudflat.

Visiting the gardens at Buckingham Palace, he is tickled to hear that a rare African clothes moth put in an appearance just after the Commonwealth Prime Ministers’ garden party.

He even sees the beauty in motorways; in the red kites soaring over the M40 and the Danish scurvy-grass, a scarce coastal plant, creating a haze of white ‘like a deep and persistent frost’ along motorway verges where it thrives, thanks to the gritting salt added to our roads.

One of the most engaging chapters is about his decision to buy a 16-acre wood in Hertfordshire. Mabey was hopelessly smitten with the place, but found the process of actually buying it a tortuous ordeal.

TURNING THE BOAT FOR HOME By Richard Mabey (Chatto £18.99, 262pp)

In the end, he paid over the odds for it, the vendor having deduced that Mabey was ‘a non-commercial and possibly desperate customer’.

He turned it into one of the first community woods, thinning out dense clusters of ash, sycamore and poplar to let in the bluebells, wood anemones and orchids and delighting in the breeding blackcap and chiffchaff.

True to his original vision, he encouraged everyone to use the wood, from the primary school children who ‘romped like foxes’ among the trees after an open-air assembly, to the sixth-formers who celebrated the end of their exams by having woodland sleepovers.

If there is a dominant theme running through Mabey’s writing, it is that we need to reconnect with nature before it is too late.

‘We have a broken relationship with the natural world and do not know how to heal it,’ he says.

His feeling towards the natural world is ‘neighbourliness . . . not friendship. It’s based on sharing a place, on the common experience of home and habitat and season’.

For all his gloom about what is happening, Mabey quotes Jeff Goldblum’s celebrated line from Jurassic Park — ‘Life finds a way’ — and puts his faith in the redemptive power of nature.

‘We need to revel in that not just for its own sake, but because it may yet help us out of the abyss.’

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