Where two kinds of wildness collide

In the second in a series of essays on nature and landscape, Richard Mabey sees a premonition of spr

New Statesman
Photograph: John Tipling

Psychogeographers, the cognoscenti tell us, have been rebranded less dizzily as “deep topographers”. The BBC’s arts editor, Will Gompertz, is making a film about an aspiring new acolyte, and is asking me if I see myself as one of their company. We’re sitting on a bench in the Oxford Botanic Garden, surrounded by irises and service trees, and I answer, too snappily, no, I’m a shallow topographer. It’s a smart-arsed, irritable reflex at these tiresome abstractions but I realise that I’m serious.

I try to explain how, for me, landscapes are paramountly about their present life, their vivacious, protean, membranous surfaces, not some intangible, semi-mystical motherlode. By lucky chance there’s a visual aid on tap.  From where we’re sitting, the gate of the Botanic Gardens, built in 1633, was intended to perfectly frame the Great Tower of Magdalen College, and form a kind of Age of Enlightenment ley line. The wild card intervened and
the local builders misaligned it by a jarring five degrees.

I was being disingenuous, of course. Landscapes and nature work by a constant juggle ­between pattern and process, chaos and order. Rock meets weather. Evanescent greenleaf generates hardwood trunk. Instinct negotiates with opportunism. Migration becomes settlement. Above ancient seasonal rhythms and inscrutable connectivities, life skits about like a cursor on a ouija board, guided by chance and exuberant inventiveness as much as deep-rooted imperatives. And especially so in spring. Gretel Ehrlich, gazing over the Wyo­ming Hills at flocks of migrating finches, falls
of hail, crashings of orchard branches, concluded that in spring, “the general law of increasing disorder is on the take”.

I get disorderly and fidgety, too, after the months of rutted inertia, and wait for that day in early March when there is a kind of pre-spring overture, when the light seems to open out, lose the brittle clarity of winter sunshine and dust the leafless landscape with the merest hint of pollen. It happened on 2 March this year and, guessing where the action would be, I sped to the vast liminal marshlands of north Norfolk. The atmosphere on the coast was electric. The sky was full of jitterbugging birds, windblown flurries of lapwing, chattering, cantankerous mobs of brent geese, flocks of golden plover, invisible until they turned in synchrony and the sun tinselled the undersides of their wings. I soon saw one reason for their restlessness. A juvenile peregrine falcon, driven by rapacious instincts, adolescent hormones and sheer devilment, was repeatedly scything at 150mph through a shape-shifting plume of starlings – and missing every time. But I sensed another thrill running through the masses of birds. They were poised for their journey home, back to the northern tundra.

Do we still have this restless itch to move on somewhere deep in our own biology? We’re touched by migration, bird migration especially, more than can be explained by the simple associations it has with the new seasons. The pioneering US nature writer Aldo Leopold envisioned the migration of geese as a kind of eco-poetic commerce, the corn of the mid-west combining with the light of the tundra to generate “as net profit a wild poem dropped from the murky skies upon the muds of March”. Do the airy, swooping flights of swallows and other summer migrants from Africa, so different from the movements of northern birds, sound faint cultural – maybe even genetic – echoes of that warm southern landscape from which the first nomadic humans emerged? Most of these annual visitors are in alarming and inexplicable decline, and we can have no idea of what we may lose if that link with our origins finally vanishes.

In the summer of 2010, just a few miles east of where I watched the peregrine, archaeologists discovered the oldest evidence yet of human occupation in Britain, a cache of flint tools probably 900,000 years old. They identified the likely makers as Homo antecessor, a group of nomadic hunter-gatherers who had risked the journey up from the continent to what was probably the northernmost habitable part of the European land mass. Happisburgh, where the find was, is currently falling into the sea, but at that time was a bone-chilling boreal forest like northern Scandinavia. When the bitter 2010 winter struck, we locals took some pride in our antecessors’ gutsiness.

I migrated to Norfolk myself ten years ago, swapping beech-clad hills for windswept flatlands. With hindsight, my journey seems as serendipitous as H. antecessor’s. It was driven by necessity (I’d been ill and needed to move away) but guided by chance – fortunate encounters, tangy memories of once-visited spots and longed-for creatures. Wafted north-east like a speck of spindrift, I ended up in the Waveney Valley, where I’ve lived ever since. I see it as home but not as a place of new roots. It’s not that I now feel rootless but that I seem to have become capable of briefly putting down new tendrils anywhere I go. As Bruce Chatwin argued, we’re more nomadic as a species than it’s politically convenient to admit.

But if I’m less deep topographer than landscape tart, I still have my manor, an entirely subjective parish that encompasses the land within a roughly ten-mile radius of my home. And every so often I beat the bounds, see what’s up, what’s about. I’m not, I hope, laying any kind of claim, just acting out that old warp and weave of nomadic curiosity and territorial affection. I looked up the exact time of the spring equinox the night before: 20 March, 5.40am. And just as one often does with a flight to catch, I woke exactly at that moment. It was barely light and the world looked flat and
lifeless. I imagined the earth enjoying a brief moment of equipoise, just before it began to tilt again. What a hope!

I head west, out into the sand country. It’s a mild, sunny day but the drought is biting hard here. The ditches are empty and the hedges leafless – except that, thanks to another kind of migration, they’re foaming with the white blossom of cherry plum, “fools’ blackthorn”, brought here from the Middle East 1,000 years ago. Much of the farmland here looks as if it’s been imported from a Martian agribusiness. Immense fields are entirely shrouded in moisture-retaining plastic sheets, as shiny as mountain lakes. Bare-earth pig ranches are sprouting everywhere. Pigs in wooden pens, corrugated iron bungalows, canvas marquees like a porcine Glastonbury. Nothing deeper in the topography here than a hog wallow.

I drive past the farm where in February an animal-rights activist filmed the most horrific violence against stock that the RSPCA has ever seen. A few days later the farmer, an honourable and much-respected man by all accounts, killed himself. There has been no identification or even rumours about the workers responsible, but I notice that the ubiquitous billboards, urging us to “Support our higher welfare standards. Buy British pork” are beginning to disappear and be replaced by “Keep out” notices.

A few miles on, I climb over a fence, out toward a big sheep pasture, and hear the heart-stirring bubbling of curlews. I can’t see them, but a buzzard glides overhead. They’re now coming back to East Anglia, after generations of persecution by gamekeepers. Then I turn round and see a trapped magpie frantic in a cage I can’t even reach, and along the barbed wire round it a dozen shrivelling moles, impaled by their noses. Even William Blake might have seen this spot as some kind of psychogeographical axis mundi, where two different kinds of wildness have collided.

This is edgy country, nervous of water shortage, EU regulations and a public scrutiny unlike anything it has experienced before, and I’m relieved to move east and south into the clay country. It’s a gentler, more intimate countryside, with small fields and smallholdings, old lanes and even older echoes. When I first came to live here I was browsing a large-scale map and was astonished to see that all the ancient features – green lanes, wood edges, field boundaries – were roughly aligned in a north-west/ south-east direction. A few local historians had spotted it, too. This fragment of landscape, dating from the Iron Age, has a four-degree tilt to the west. It is invisible from ground level, so how it happened is a mystery. Thoreau had a theory that our species has a ­natural instinct to move in a westerly direction, following the course of the sun.

I follow my own instincts along this maze of lanes, through the village where, in the 1920s, two London socialists defied the local gentry and clergy and set up a community school that lasted until the outbreak of the Second World War. I find thin secluded valleys I’ve never been in before, pass fuzzy commons, snail farms, otter streams, craft studios, a whole magpie ecology blessedly free of a cage. These valleys and wet patches have been the protectors of East Anglia’s distinct sense of identity. They’ve kept the big roads away and people come to East Anglia, not through it.

I end up in one of these miniature flood-plain valleys, where I saw my first local barn owl, that ancient parish familiar. I haven’t seen one here for two years but just as the sun sets one skews out of a ditch. It flies off like the dismissive wave of a white cape, on an incompre­hensible course over a dog-walking green. Barn owls do not fly high, but if it had and had looked down on the parish I’d just circumnavigated, it would have seen a pattern that turned upside-down my glib dismissal of deep topography. The surface membrane, inert, plastic, barbed and private; and, flowing around and through it, these thin meandering ribbons of life, first carved out at the end of the Ice Age.

Richard Mabey’s latest book is “The Perfumier and the Stinkhorn” (Profile Books, £9.99)
 

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