I set off for a walk in the rain the other day, zipped up in a waterproof and determined to enjoy it, having just read Melissa Harrison’s wonderful book Rain: Four Walks in English Weather, in which she lovingly describes the sensual joy of raindrops pattering on leaves, the bright freshness of damp greenery, the city smell of petrichor (rain hitting a dry pavement). I tried to rise above the misery of wet trousers, frizzed hair and misted-up glasses, and had an entirely new walking experience.
It’s one of the great pleasures of reading nature books – you learn something. In just the opening few pages of Rain, I was dazzled by a wealth of facts about fens, ants, moles and worms. When Harrison admits guiltily that she is unsure about identifying cover crops and legumes, I thought, “Honestly, you don’t need to apologise to me. I can barely tell a hawk from a shepherd.” These books are like science fiction to me, full of mind-boggling information about a planet I happen to live on but know so little about.
And they’re very popular at the moment. I came across a theory as to why this might be in Edgelands by Paul Farley and Michael Symmons Roberts, which posits an idea derived from the science of genomics. “Progressive detachment” refers to the way that sophisticated life forms have been found, counter-intuitively, to have shorter genomes than less sophisticated creatures. The thinking is that evolutionary errors have switched off certain parts, resulting in the loss of ingrained and instinctive behaviours. Freed from, for instance, the need to build exactly the same nest at the same time every year, higher life forms (such as humans) can choose what to do, and civilisation is born. But the price paid is a loss of that instinctive behaviour, which engenders a kind of longing; and so, the writers ask, “Is it any wonder we wax lyrical about the hills, forest, rivers, moors? Does this explain our culture’s recurring dreams of going feral, back to nature . . . ?”
I’ve been reading a great deal of poetry lately, as a judge for the Forward Prizes for Poetry, and can report that it’s still full of waxing lyrical about the natural world. Lots of rivers, owls and (the current favourite animal) foxes. Good nature writing is elemental and grounded, but when it goes wrong, it veers towards Boot’s column in Scoop – “Feather-footed through the plashy fen passes the questing vole . . . ” and so on. At that point, I turn gratefully to poems about people: being born or dying, arguing, talking, connecting, doing all that people stuff.
The truth is I like people. Nature lovers often seek solitude. Sometimes, this looks like a desire to get away from other humans. But I like to have humans around me at all times. I like to look out at night and see lighted windows nearby. I don’t much mind sirens or occasional car alarms – they remind me that I’m not alone. In our garden, on quite a busy road, the soundtrack is a white noise of traffic, while the blackbird sings and soars above it: a happy mix.
I say blackbird; it’s quite possibly a chaffinch. Or a blue tit. What do I know? I’m sure of a goldfinch when I see one, thanks to the picture on the front of the Donna Tartt novel, but got into a terrible pickle the other day when my misuse of a bird book led me to identify a dunnock (the commonest of common garden birds) as a rare visiting warbler.
I’ve learned that a baby blackbird is as big as its parents, hopping across the lawn behind them all day long, demanding to be fed. And then they do, the mugs. Digging up worms for this pampered little bully, they look harassed and martyred. I think of those women who still breastfeed giant toddlers. But when I see it later in the birdbath, not cleaning or cooling, just splashing for fun, shouting, “Look at me, Mum, I’m paddling!” I remember that one of the theories about birdsong is that some of it is simply singing for joy. And I realise there might be something in this nature lark after all.
This article appears in the 01 Jun 2016 issue of the New Statesman, How men got left behind