The grass below, above, the vaulted sky
NATURE CURE by Richard Mabey Chatto, £15.99, pp. 231, ISBN 0701176016 ✆ £13.99 (plus £2.25 p&p) 0870 800 4848 It was soon after he finished work on Flora Britannica, his hugely successful book about the wild plants he had spent his life exploring, that Richard Mabey fell ill. It began as a nagging feeling of ‘illfittedness’, being out of kilter with his surroundings, and with the loss of all taste and hunger for work. An author and naturalist with a string of memorable and excellent books behind him, he simply ran out of words. By the time he was diagnosed as suffering from severe depression he had fallen out with his much loved sister, sold the family home, and was spending most of his time, when not in hospital or drinking in the pub, lying curled up on his bed facing the wall.
Nature Cure, Mabey’s account of his illness and the gradual climb back to feeling at ease again, is more an essay, a disquisition on the relationship between man and nature, than a foray into the insidious workings of a depressive illness. The facts are recounted in just a few words — no response to drugs or therapy, then a serendipitous rescue by friends, a slow noticing of the East Anglian countryside in which he had taken refuge, and a happy encounter with a woman he would eventually share his life with. On doctors and conventional treatment Mabey has little to say beyond a few polite but incredulous sentences about the absurdity of ever imagining that discussing or understanding an illness of this kind could ever ‘make the hard-wiring that caused it’ disappear.
This brief explanation over, Mabey returns to the real themes of his book. Just as East Anglia was sinking under freezing December winds, Mabey agreed to house-sit a couple of wary cats for a friend who spent her working week in London. The house was very old and very cold. Mabey and the cats shivered. But as the deep winter gave way to the ‘little visions and intimations’ of spring, as Mabey saw his first bluebell and watched a ghostly white swan weave its way through the tops of the willows like an owl, so, minutely, day by day, he began to escape the tormenting claustrophobia of his own mind and turn outwards to the country world he had so loved. Though man has indeed evolved as a talker and a dreamer, Mabey remarks, this should not prevent him from realising that our imaginative affinities with the natural world are a ‘crucial ecological bond, as essential to us as our material needs for air and water’.
As Mabey grew better, so he started to work. Wandering through the woods and across the fens of his new surroundings — he had spent most of his life in the Chiltern hills — he noticed and recorded, with the precision and delicacy that have distinguished all his books, the birds, plants, animals, weather and water that lay around him. Restored to a delight in every new and unexpected sight and encounter, he turned to the writers John Clare, Gilbert White — whose descriptions of nature he most admired.
Nature Cure traces a full calendar year, mirrored in the changes in nature and in his own steps out of the dark. It is a marvellous introduction to a natural world few people ever take the time or interest to explore, with every detail of colour and shape picked out and framed. And, in among the loving portraits of ‘lapwings sweeing overhead’ and native redcurrants growing in flashes of stagnant water, Mabey has woven reflections on his own experience. He will never, he concludes, feel ‘cured’, for he senses that he is unlikely ever to lose the cross-currents of anxiety and unease that ambush him from time to time. But he has rediscovered the credo that in his black moments he feared he had lost for ever: a belief in the impor tance of a sensual engagement with the world and a conviction that, to remain on an even keel in life, it is foolish to ignore the links that exist between feelings, the imagination and intelligence.