It felt like a waste to go indoors on such a beautiful evening, bearing in mind what I was going indoors for: an evening with nature writer Mark Cocker. Was it worth it? Of course it was. Despite the slightly awkward experience of discovering that most people in the audience were a good twenty years older than me – clearly nature writing is not a passion for the young – I learned a lot, and still had some time left to enjoy the last sunshine of the day afterwards.
Apart from a nature writer, Cocker is also a columnist for The Guardian and an activist keen to preserve the landscape he writes about. Cynical interpretations would call this combination of pursuits an obvious one – after all, his livelihood depends on the availability of nature – but of course his motivations transcend his individual needs. As he passionately stated near the end of his talk, we can all do something to make the world better, from recycling plastic to reconsidering whether we really want to buy that cheap flight ticket.
It should be noted that I started reading Cocker’s work during a less-than-wonderful time in my life earlier this year. My grandmother had just passed away after a long period of illness and, while not unexpected, her death marked the beginning of a rather confusion couple of months. Although, in a sense, my grief had started before her death, I was unprepared for the disruption her passing provoked. I felt disconnected from life, unable to make basic life choices – do I want tea or coffee today? – and technology and other people made me feel anxious and over-stimulated.
I even struggled to concentrate on books. As a lifelong reader who needs books like air – and this is no exaggeration – this was a worrying development. Luckily my local library came to the rescue, as usual, and drew my attention to its sizeable collection of nature writing. I picked up a book because its cover appealed to me. The book was Meadowland by John Lewis-Stempel, and its discovery a small revelation.
On book led to another. From Lewis-Stempel I moved on to Richard Mabey, Cocker of course, and a range of other authors. What attracted me in these books? I suppose it was their simplicity. By this I don’t mean that they are easy reads – Cocker’s work is often very literary, and cleverly constructed – but the hustle and bustle of everyday life took a backseat in them. Even though I struggled to concentrate on work or hobbies, books about meadows and birds I could understand. And even enjoy.
Soon I started venturing out into the countryside Cocker writes about, namely Norfolk, a landscape conveniently located around the city where I live. Very slowly I started to feel better. I still have good days and bad days but my close encounters with nature have been, I hesitate to say it, healing. This was largely due to the emphasis writers such as Cocker put on perception. When you’re writing about birds or flowers, you’re zooming in to nature’s details. This calls for looking, really looking, instead of regarding nature as nothing but the backdrop to human experience.
Not that human experience is irrelevant – as Cocker said repeatedly during his talk, we are nature – and of course the writer and observer is always present in whatever they describe. But for me, as an individual, Cocker’s writer served as a useful reminder that I am not an isolated individual, even though I occasionally felt that way during those first dark weeks. And of course that consideration has ramifications that go well beyond the individual. If we consider ourselves as beings that are part of nature, protecting wildlife and combating climate change becomes more than something that “has to be done”. It becomes an act of self-preservation.
Deep thoughts for a pleasant Thursday evening, it must be said. Cocker was excellently interviewed by UEA’s Jean McNeil – whose work deserves a blog post in its own right. It was slightly ironic to be talking about nature in the restaurant of a department store, a glass of elderflower fizz in hand, but as I walked out into the lingering heat I knew I had plenty to think about. And to read, as I’ve now expanded my view beyond nature writing again, though the genre will always have a special place in my heart. Cocker himself hinted at being ready to move on, which I can understand – at some point one must be running out of ideas and in need of a fresh perspective. But his existing books are there for the taking, and the questions they ask remain as pressing as ever.
Image my own – The Broads near Great Yarmouth