Perhaps it was only a matter of time before I would seriously get into nature writing. I like books, I like nature, so it was inevitable for those two passions to meet in the middle at some point. I even wrote a chapter on Edward Abbey’s The Monkey Wrench Gang as part of my own book. Abbey’s novel, however problematic its politics may feel in this day and age, breathes an unquestionable love for the landscape it is set in. From the moment I first set eyes on the story, it spoke to me, though I wasn’t sure in what way.
My local library, being based in a rather rural county, has an impressive collection of travel and nature writing. Its librarians like to create pretty displays of books they think us readers might enjoy. It’s a great way to discover new writers and even entire genres. This is how I picked up Mark Cocker’s Crow Country. John Lewis-Stempel’s Meadowland. Dave Goulson’s A Sting in the Tale. After that, there was no turning back. I was officially hooked.
But why? Sure, nature is nice. Over the past couple of months I’ve made a few daytrips across Norfolk to explore its more remote corners. Richard Mabey’s Nature Cure suggests that nature can be a healing tonic for a weary soul. Jean-Christophe Rufin’s The Santiago Pilgrimage makes a similar point about walking. And I surely was looking for the kind of solace only the peace and quiet of the countryside could offer me. Failing that, reading about other people’s ramblings was the next best thing.
If that’s true, then why did I enjoy Ian Frazier’s Adventures in the City so much? This collection of essays is, after all, set in New York City. Hardly a place one thinks of when in need of rest and some space for quiet introspection. Frazier’s New York is dirty, noisy, full of colourful people. In fact, that’s why some online reviewers don’t seem to like the book. It doesn’t offer the New York they crave – Frazier never mentions the Statue of Liberty or Times Square. Instead he writes about his relationship with the city and the people in it. And his hatred of rogue plastic bags.
Perhaps that’s the answer: it’s not the nature in nature writing that I’m craving, though its presence helps. All the authors mentioned above are good observers. They look at animals, trees, rivers, or buildings and reflect on their place within the landscape. As well as their own relation to the world around them. Rather than stumbling through life, barely paying attention to the daffodils in the park, they stop to take a closer look.
If this sounds a bit hippy-ish and soft, it is not. Lewis-Stempel writes about his often unsuccessful attempts to train his gun dog Edith. Cocker’s desire to see rooks takes him to a soaked and stormy hill in the middle of winter. Frazier gets lost in a part of New York unsuitable for walking and takes a bus home covered in sweat and soot. The world is not necessarily a sweet, friendly place, all these writers suggest. It can be rough and dangerous. It’s not always kind to people.
Last week I entered the dojo for my brown belt karate grading. I walked out with the belt in my hand, aching all over, barely able to drag myself back home. But for a few seconds, as I moved through Tekki Shodan, I was completely present. My brain, normally buzzing along with ideas and to do lists, had gone quiet. All that mattered was my moving body, the wooden floor beneath my feet, the chilly air in the former factory building.
I don’t like the word mindfulness. It conjures up images of humming people sitting in a circle trying to get in contact with their root chakra. Or quick fix approaches favoured by overworked managers to get the sickness levels in their department down. But all jokes and grumbling aside, I suppose that’s what attracts me to these books about trees, birds, and soggy fields. A desire to stop and look, really look, at what is right in front of me.
Image my own – Tree in Pensthorpe Natural Park