The Books Interview: Richard Mabey

Do you think that the best nature writing aspires to a kind of communion with the natural world?
The notion of communion raises challenges, because it does imply a kind of deliberate reciprocity that, I think, is the other side of Romanticism. And it becomes a kind of metaphysic, though not one that I can go along with.

But, to give an absolutely fundamental example of reciprocity, what a tree's leaves breathe out, we breathe in. That transcends all the arguments about consciousness.

We don't think about how we are breathing the exhalations of oak trees, any more than the oak trees think about it. So that's a true unconscious communion.

The poet John Clare looms large in your new book, The Perfumier and the Stinkhorn. What is it that you most admire about Clare?
Humility and rage - which is a wonderful and intoxicating combination that we normally find in saints. If I was to pick one poem of Clare's to take to heaven with me, it would be "To the Snipe". He's down there, quaking at the bottom of a swamp, understanding what it's like to be a downtrodden creature.

Aren't there limits to that kind of sympathy? We cannot, to borrow a phrase, know "what it's like to be a bat".
That's a perfectly fair point. I don't know how one negotiates that difficulty. There is a point at which the greatest act of respect you can pay to a bat is to say that there's absolutely no way we can empathise with it at all.

One could infer from the book that your view of the relationship between scientific and Romantic attitudes to nature has changed.
I think I probably always secretly thought science was important, but I used to wish that scientists thought it was sometimes more magical.
Whereas I was using the science and pretending that it wasn't important until I transmuted it by my philosopher's stone into poetry, they were guilty of not recognising that what they were seeing was absolutely the stuff of poetry. And they were frightened to apply this elixir to it themselves.

When did you feel most at one with the natural world?
I was at an annual medical last week and the doctor went away to do the centrifuge, the blood sample for certain tests. I had forgotten what a fantastically exciting thing a centrifuge was to have in the lab at school - this extraordinary force, whirling test tubes of milky fluid round and round.
I don't know to what extent one could stretch the idea of communion to say that I felt part of the same world, but it touched my excitement synapses in a way both music and friendship did.

The scientific and Romantic impulses seem to mingle in your mind in a particularly productive way. Can they be reconciled?
They do sometimes have to be reconciled. I had some experiences with owls during the absolute awfulness of the December bad weather, when we thought 90 per cent of the British owl population had been killed by the cold. Of course they hadn't, and I kept finding them in strange, secret places, hunting in woods instead of meadows.

Three weeks ago I bought myself a rather expensive pair of night-vision binoculars, and once I've learned to use them properly - they're so hi-tech that I'm having a bit of trouble with them - I'll be able to go out and spy on owls in their own, very private element of the pitch dark.

I can't reconcile these two emotions in myself at the moment: the desire to know what happens to my beloved birds and a moral feeling that there are areas where I shouldn't be able to expect to do this easily. So I'm afraid I'm in conflict here.

Are you planning to make your next book about owls?
It won't be about owls directly, but it will have the debate that they started very close to its centre. I want to talk about living in Norfolk and about how one negotiates a way of living on the land.

Where I live is pitched exactly between, as it were, a fen and a dry place - we have the broads on one side and this extraordinary area of Breckland on the other. We are in the middle, with two acres of quite wild land that I'm trying to do things with, and I am asking questions about how one does them. So, the owls will enter as one of the things that are there which have stimulated the idea of thinking in terms of neighbourhood.


Jonathan Derbyshire is Managing Editor of Prospect. He was formerly Culture Editor of the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 25 April 2011 issue of the New Statesman, Easter special