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24 March 2021updated 25 Mar 2021 6:02pm

The man who saw everything

Richard Mabey’s powers of noticing made him the godfather of “the new nature writing”. At 80, he reflects on depression, class and why the natural world does not exist to make us well

The daffodils Wordsworth wrote about don’t look much like your modern ones. In early March they’re slim as fountain pens, with dark yellow trumpets and delicate petals barely open in the cold. There are a thousand of them in Richard Mabey’s garden, bred from a clone in the Brecon Beacons. Mabey, wearing as many layers as anyone in lockdown three, is forced to point out that the New Statesman is standing on one. They are a month late this year. “Flowers don’t suddenly, regardless of the weather, come out and get killed by the frost,” he says. “Some have got the sense to keep their heads down for a while.”

In winter he becomes a “peerer” – he jabs the ground with his walking stick – “gazing in the hope that some small, green shoot might reveal itself”. He turned 80 in February. It’s harder to spy things these days, and harder to bend down: “I want them to reveal themselves at my scale!”

You half expect the man who wrote the Flora Britannica, once described as the Domesday Book of plants, to live in a domestic jungle with rare species running wild. But this looks like any Norfolk garden in the winter. There’s a 17th-century farmhouse with a thatched roof and a 1930s extension. Among the bare trees are slender cherry saplings that have naturally regenerated, and at their centre, a Swedish whitebeam with sawn-off branches sticking up like a severed hand. “I wanted something like a pollard, or a tree that had been struck by lightning,” he says, “so I got a guy to lop those off and it’s opened up a nice gap in the canopy. It may or may not sprout. If it dies, that’s fine – it’ll be a nice piece of rotten wood.”

Mabey’s first book, 1972’s Food for Free, was a handbook on foraging, 40 years before hipsters were doing it, and has never been out of print. Its follow-up, The Unofficial Countryside (1973), was inspired by his time working as an editor at Penguin: behind its West Drayton offices he found derelict canals and Victorian rubbish tips teeming with life. In 50 years of writing, he has produced encyclopedias and field guides, angry op-eds and vibrant meditations, and a biography of the 18th-century naturalist Gilbert White. His 2005 book Nature Cure reinvigorated a centuries-old tradition of writing about the relationship between mental health and the natural world. Somewhere along the way, he became the godfather of what has been called “the new nature writing”. “I always seem to glimpse him far ahead of me on the path,” says Robert Macfarlane, a leading author of the next generation.

When Mabey was around 40, he spent a royalty windfall on a patch of woodland near his childhood home in the Chilterns. Having been turned out of a wood at gunpoint at the age of 11, he had always fantasised about “playing Robin Hood” and returning a piece of land to the people. Hardings Wood became a community project. But when he first got his hands on it, he noticed that he always felt the need to do something – he couldn’t help trimming the brambles the way one might paint a skirting board in a new home.

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How much should a naturalist cultivate their land? Mabey and his partner, Polly, keep their meadow mown. “If I was to go on my hands and knees through this edge of the garden, it’s full of seedlings,” he says. “By mowing it, you’re stopping the trees advancing towards the house like Birnam Wood. Maybe when Polly and I are too old, it will.”

[see also: Alone in the new world]

Back in the Eighties, Mabey was told by the BBC Natural History Unit that he was being touted as the successor to David Attenborough. His TV shows were the distant antecedents of Springwatch: semi-live, “filming a walk as you went along, the only script the direction of travel”. In his 1975 series The World About Us he points out: “In waste patches and factory backyards, in gasworks and railway sidings, nature fights back, for without meaning to we have created in our cities a vast prefabricated reserve for wildlife…” He showed black redstarts living in bomb sites and gasworks, and speculated that hundred-year old seeds had been turned over by local bulldozers, allowing long-lost plants to flower again.

He loved TV work – its speed and camaraderie, the rhythm of the day, “the ruinous affairs that would flair up and collapse”. He was bookish but sexy, perched on the roof of a canal boat with an unnamed lady friend, or squatting on his haunches to read something out of a 17th-century herbal. But the shows were ahead of their time.

“They weren’t ready to take the real jump and portray the natural world in the messy way that a) it is, and b) we perceived it,” he says. “They’re still very fond of humans knowing all the answers. The idea of Keats’s negative capability, of creative uncertainty – they did not find exciting.”

He never replaced David Attenborough. “I fell out of favour with the Natural History Unit,” he says. “My auteur approach was going out of fashion in favour of increasing technical gimmickry, so that the first question viewers asked was not what was happening but, ‘How did they film that?’”

In 2003, in a piece for the Guardian, he challenged the intrusive special effects of modern wildlife filming and criticised Attenborough for not addressing the environmental crisis in his shows. “I guess that pretty much sealed my fate TV-wise.” Of Springwatch, he says: “Some of the more frivolous contributors I could do without.”

Mabey’s programmes, like his writing, explored the bond between nature and culture. He is more tender towards humanity than, say, James Lovelock, who has always said that the planet will go on without us if we continue to abuse it. “If we absolutely fuck it up, the planet will be absolutely fine,” he agrees. “It’ll retrench to much simpler ecosystems. But I’d be very sad if humans vanished, you know. I think we’re a fantastically interesting and creative species.

“So I would hope that we might get our act together. But I think it’s very unlikely, because no species has ever acted as a species. Nothing in the natural world does – they act in terms of their own genes, and their families. The sense of species awareness is unique to humans, but whether it really has any firm bounds in our deep psychological make-up, I don’t know. It probably doesn’t.”

Mabey observes the fields around his house, monitoring farmers’ tiny movements back and forth between apparent sensitivity and thoughtlessness. Ten years ago they’d leave little buffer zones at the side of a crop to encourage biodiversity in hedgerows. Now they’re ploughing right up to the edge again. Fields are “so abused by over-ploughing, they look like those pictures of the trenches Paul Nash painted, just enormous billows of dead clay”. In the Neolithic age, he discovered, land was left to recover for 20 years at a time. A telescopic sense of the past gives a constant measure of how we are doing. 

***

Mabey was 15 when he started looking very closely at things: he remembers a change in his perception, “where the perception became a conceit in itself”. As a child, his relationship with the land around the family home in Berkhamsted was close, physical, “aboriginal”. But by adolescence he was hyper romantic – at points, on a regular bike ride through woods to the nearby cricket ground, he would become almost transfixed. “As well as the details of the landscape, I was aware of my own feelings about it, which is a significant change. I couldn’t understand my feelings: they were numinous, almost, but it was physical, made my legs tremble. It was my first knee-trembler, the landscape.”

This new self-consciousness made him aware of other behaviours: since childhood he had taken particular routes through the woods, touching certain trees, “and being almost obsessively precise about where I walked, in the way that one does as a child, not stepping on cracks in paving stones. I had to keep to one side of the track for a certain portion. And I became aware of the strangeness of all this. There was a nasty atmosphere in the house most of the time I was growing up, and I have a feeling that the ritualism of those walks was marking my own territory out a bit: This is where I am.”

Inside the house, his father lay in bed “drinking whiskey and having heart attacks”. Thomas Mabey was an East-Ender, a “literal cockney” who’d worked his way up to being a clerk at the Midland Bank. Mabey’s mother Edna, born to Polish-Jewish and Irish immigrants, was working as a stenographer. Mabey does not know the story of their meeting.

“My mother was very oppressed by my father, who had financial control of the family,” he says. “He refused to sign any forms that allowed us to progress in our journeys to university, so Mum used to forge his signature. I hated him for it at the time. I can understand it now, because he’d been cut down in his late forties by his own bad habits and by coronary disease, and I think he was just resentful of any of us children doing better than him.” 

There were four Mabey children. The eldest, Pat, referred to today as the Old Dish, was at Brighton Art College, with a promising future as an illustrator, when she was taken with God at a Billy Graham meeting, and went on to spend 30 years working as a missionary in Nepal. She died of Covid just before Christmas. There is Dave, who wrote a food book called Breadlines in the Seventies – about living on one. And there is Jill, “bedrock of the siblings, without the flighty neuroticism and oddity of her elders”, as Mabey puts it. She worked with children, and was for many years the partner of Gary Numan’s drummer Ced Sharpley.

[see also: Growing up in industrial towns, I followed the tracks of animals to seek out small pockets of woodland]

It is almost impossible to get a sense of life in the Mabey household because the spectre of the father in his bed dominates all impressions of the family. Here was a gang of arty, neurotic children who all went on to do interesting things – but what inspired them is a mystery. There is no talk of a shared imaginative world, or games or books. By contrast Mabey’s childhood friends were “desperately important” to him: “My whole sense of being was with the friends I ran with.” He still knows many of them today.

Mabey’s mother signed his paperwork for Oxford University. At 18, in 1959, he applied for biochemistry, unaware of what the degree involved but seduced by the grandeur and scope of the “bio” part. He switched to politics, philosophy and economics, the degree of the modern Westminster politician, after writing a letter to the department on 16 sides of Basildon Bond. He attended the lectures of Isaiah Berlin (“3,000 people crammed in the theatre. He’d direct his words to the top right of the crowd”) and had moral philosophy tutorials under Iris Murdoch, “who was very relaxed and more interested in talking about CND [the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament]”.

Mabey became involved with the anti-nuclear movement through the Committee of 100, formed in 1960 by Bertrand Russell. Its campaign of civil disobedience included revealing the sites of the regional seats of government – “Those things dug underground, where the elite would be allowed to go in the event of a nuclear war and govern the lives of us wretched survivors,” he says. He was keeper of the map of the Reading location. “I remember folding it up very small, terrified of being in possession of it, knowing it was so important – and I put it in a matchbox and hid it in a vase at home.”

Mabey’s father died during his final university exams, in 1963. “The greatest unhappiness I have, looking back at that period,” he says, “was not sharing my different, intellectual life with my mum. She’d made it possible for me to have it, but I was flying on new wings. I would like to have said, ‘Look, this is what I’m doing: thank you.’ She mightn’t have understood it all – I mean that’s, I suppose, the fear I had, that, ‘Oh, my God, Mum won’t be up to this.’”

Had his mother read much of his work by the time she died? “She read some of it. But I wish I’d been more confident about her. She was a not-well-read, working-class woman,” he is pushing the words past a lump in his throat, “and I undervalued that bit of her, and that’s bad.” 

***

In his ability to look very hard, and very closely, at the natural world, Mabey has something in common with Andrew Marvell, whose retreat to a Yorkshire country house after the execution of Charles I produced two years of startling nature poetry. Marvell derives terrific energy from the act of looking, in the knowledge he will never truly be one with his surroundings. There is more at work in his poems than solace, or escape. As a young man Mabey was inspired by JA Baker’s The Peregrine (1967), a dazzling study of the bird written from a place of personal obsession, and by Kenneth Allsop’s columns in the Sunday Times. But the “new nature writing” – that bestselling form with its intense first-person narrations – would probably not exist without him.

The movement has produced something resembling the literary spats of old. A few years back, the writer Steven Poole called it bourgeois escapism: “Nature writers do tend to whitewash the non-human world as a place of eternal sun-dappled peace and harmony.” (“I have a huge admiration for Steven normally,” says Mabey, “but his attack was just silly.”) In the New Statesman Mark Cocker complained that Robert Macfarlane “clothes the landscape in fine writing” – his own, and that of Emily Brontë and others. Helen Macdonald, whose award-winning H is for Hawk (2014) entwined human trauma and recovery with the study of a beast, created a form that has inspired many odder titles over the years, such as How to Catch a Mole and Find Yourself in Nature (Marc Hamer, 2019). And in 2008, the Scottish poet Kathleen Jamie had identified, in a review of Macfarlane’s The Wild Places in the London Review of Books, the “Lone Enraptured Male” – “From Cambridge! Here to boldly go, ‘discovering’, then quelling our harsh and lovely and sometimes difficult land with his civilised lyrical words.” Mabey brings it up, giggling, leaning against one of his trees: “That hurt, I can tell you! Rob was in a terrible state after that!”

He is always at the centre of the disputes, but generally as a barometer of how to do it well. “What strikes me still about Richard’s writing are three qualities,” MacFarlane tells me. “A deep natural-historical knowledge, especially in terms of flora; the profound tenderness and compassion that he extends towards the more-than-human world; and the brilliant analytical capacity that often sets him thinking against the grain. He is a proper field naturalist, an ecological ethicist, a superb stylist, and – in today’s parlance – a disrupter. That’s a unique mix.”

The new nature writing spats, Mabey says, made them all acutely self-conscious. But later, over a glass of white wine, sitting outside for a coronavirus-age, al fresco lunch, he adds, “What I will say is that in much modern nature writing there is a tendency to view the natural world as a kind of magic globe in which to view oneself. I judged a competition recently and out of 30 or so entries just two were about the natural world and the rest were about the people who had written them.”

Mabey was not surprised when the pandemic came. “Not at all! I was quite mischievous to start with, before the full horror became apparent. I was making the virus’s case. Because viruses were there before the very first single-celled creatures; the very first signs of life on the planet, so they’re our ancestors. And lots of them live with us quite amicably, because it’s not in a virus’s interest to kill its host.”

What did he think of the government’s delay in ordering a nationwide lockdown? “With hindsight they obviously handled it appallingly, but how many countries did actually listen, unequivocally, to their scientists? It’s a big question, listening to scientists. If you did, with political compromise, we’d be living in a very difficult world. And one knows that in the past scientists have given the wrong advice.”

“There’s another thing there that fascinates me,” he says. “Our dear leader actually uttered this phrase: ‘We must be humble in the face of nature.’ He was publicly declaring, in a way that I don’t think was fully comprehended, that the virus was part of nature. We were being reconnected with it on rather a large scale. We really need to think about what we mean by ‘nature’ much more seriously. It is such a glib word.”   

***

In all the years that Richard Mabey was making shows for the BBC and writing bestselling books, he was living at home with his mother. He did not forge a lasting romantic relationship until his sixties. A decade after his father died, his mother developed Parkinson’s disease. Mabey became her carer, along with his sister Jill, who would come to stay at the family home. Mabey would “tap away” at his writing in one room, with his mother in her bedroom, and in the afternoon he would take long walks – along the canal bank in Berkhamsted, or in the local beech woods.

“When life went swimmingly, and work was good, I didn’t want it to be any other way – I was not in any way trapped in the house,” he says. “But when big challenges happened and it came to building a different life of my own I flunked. I became a serious commitment-phobe and had all kinds of catastrophically failed relationships, because I was terrified of starting off on my own.”

Remaining at home, he says, was “pathological”. “Initially, I was worried that if I ventured out by myself, my mum would lose support. But then it became about me losing support, the house I had grown up in. So it was quite neurotic, my staying there, and that’s eventually what made me ill.”

In 1993, his mother died. The day after her death, Mabey took a walk on one of his regular routes and thought, “My God, I haven’t got to go home. And I remember feeling fantastic shame about it. People who’ve been, however marginally, a carer, have very complicated emotions when they are released.”

Some years after his mother’s death, exhausted from completing Flora Britannica, he had a breakdown. He suffered auditory and visual hallucinations, and was hospitalised at St Andrew’s mental health facility in Northampton.

Mabey once described himself as an epiphyte: an organism that grows and feeds on the surface of another. Upon his release from St Andrew’s, he and his sister cleared the family home. They could not get any local charities to take the furniture, so they burned it in the garden. At that point, instead of going “to a kind of halfway house” he went to stay with childhood friends in Blakeney in Norfolk. As he recovered, they introduced him to a friend called Polly Lavender who’d grown up with a close-knit family on the Norfolk Broads. She had an unusual vivacity and a love of nature that matched his. She also has four children, and grandchildren; Mabey says he never wanted any of his own.

The couple moved to a friend’s house nearby, before taking on the farmhouse. Mabey recorded his return to health, and his psychological shift from one landscape to another, in Nature Cure – a book he describes as a “coming of age story, rather late in life”.  

***

Today, Mabey has a conscious relationship with depression. “For me, there are two sorts of black dog. One is just a low-level misery about the decay of the flesh and bad weather and all that stuff, which is just an advanced form of grumpiness and tends to make me a bit aggressive and tetchy.

“Then there’s the more serious depression, which is not so much about me, but about the world, and I think that it’s creative – or at least, I hope it is – because I suppose I’m a bit of a contrarian about the idea that nature is always there to make you well.”

He credits Kathleen Jamie with changing his thinking. “She pointed out, in fact, that nature also made you ill, in one or two of those wonderful essays in her first collection Findings, about her husband’s illness. I’m prepared to recognise that nature is entirely indifferent to us. And this hurts a lot of people, the current nature freaks, who think that out there is a” – he sounds mildly repelled – “‘green warmth’ towards us. This is rubbish.

“I am most exhilarated when I can see lives going on which are irrespective of my presence. How can we think clearly about this thing we call nature, in its fullness? Learn to live with all the different ways in which it presents itself? If that springs from a kind of depressive feeling, it actually produces different  perspectives on how we categorise the world.”

[see also: Why I wept at spring’s arrival]

He cracked it just once, he says, in the last essay in his 2019 collection Turning the Boat for Home. Two days after Christmas, in 2010, he was out “desperately” looking for barn owls. About to give up, he saw a “white blob”, and thought it was a plastic bag, or trainers hurled into a tree. “But as I got close to it, it shifted ever so slightly, turned towards me and then turned away. I remember this phrase coming into my head. I thank you for your attention, neighbour, but my life is quite independent of your viewing of it. And then it flew away into the tangle of dark.”

And this was a good feeling? “Yes. The bird’s OK. And I think it explains the great surge of public interest in the natural world during last year’s lockdown, too: it was an absolute rejoicing, an astonishment, that nature appeared to be going on while we were floundering in our death throes.

“Previously, more people might have been inclined towards TS Eliot’s thing in The Waste Land: ‘April is the cruellest month…’” He suggests that the resurgence of the natural world can cause, in anyone with the slightest depressive inclinations, feelings of resentment: “I want to go back to being curled up in a chair in winter, not to have to confront the vivacity of the world.”  

***

A cross the garden, Polly is putting out lunch, with three brightly coloured blankets for the knees. Did it feel like a different kind of falling in love, with her?

“Yes, it did,” Mabey says. “I knew I had no escape this time. I can remember very vividly the sort of get-out lines that I had with women before: ‘I just have to let you know I’ve got to look after my mum.’ And I can remember, I had a quite nice fling with [the actress] Liza Goddard for a couple of years, and she said to me, ‘There are two women in your life, Richard, and you’ve got to decide which one.’”

It is testament to his recovery from depression that he was able to form a relationship. “Well, I was pretty well better by then,” he says. “Which is the thing that I suppose I need to confess: calling that book Nature Cure was a bit of a con, because I knew it was wonderfully euphonious, but the book is not about me being cured by nature; I was already cured before I started it.”

In their garden they get muntjac deer, who have eaten their tulips. A small wooden outhouse contains books and sprouting potatoes. Mabey doesn’t have a regular writing room these days – he drifts about, and takes the laptop anywhere that’s warm.

He still dreams about the old family house, he says, over lunch: “I sometimes have waking dreams as well. I half doze off in front of the television, and I’m back in the room where I watched it in Berkhamsted.”

Polly adds, “Then you say, ‘I’ll just put that in the back room.’ And I say, ‘Back room? We don’t have a back room!’”

“I’ve been almost afraid to confess that it happens to me,” he tells her. “I thought it would be an insult to being here.”

[see also: How our mental health is shaped by nature]

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This article appears in the 24 Mar 2021 issue of the New Statesman, Spring special