My Countryside interview: Richard Mabey

The journalist and nature writer on the urban/rural divide, rights of access and relations between nature and culture

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I‘ve always seen myself as an ‘edgelander’ rather than a real country person. I grew up in a small town in the Chilterns and moved to the Waveney Valley in East Anglia 12 years ago, so I’ve lived in both woody hillscapes and wild, wet flatlands. But my perspective has always been semi-urban, from the worlds of academia and writing, which gives me a different take on rural life.

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I wrote The Cabaret of Plants: Botany and the Imagination to help reinvigorate interest in plants as lively, independent organisms. We understand their value today, but only to the extent that they serve us. We treat them as little more than the furniture of the planet – decorative, economically useful, but of no value in themselves. But there has been a long history of a more imaginative view, stretching back 35,000 years to Ice Age art, and ranging through Romantic poetry and Enlightenment science. It valued them as beings in their own right, as generators of ideas about form, mortality, the boundaries of the individual, the nature of life itself. It is a view that is now re-emerging, with recent exciting revelations about plant senses and intelligence.

I’m not sure that any natural sight is more beautiful than another. All life is elegant, extraordinary, beyond belief. Earlier this year I saw the summer’s first Grass of Parnassus flower, a perfect chalice of porcelain white, and a few yards away some green woodpecker’s droppings, burned-out cigar ends full of the sparkle of ants’ wings and chitin: the moment showed that there is beauty in beginnings and endings. One sight I miss is swallows on telegraph wires, not in threes and fours but hundreds. Never more alas.

My worst experiences outdoors in Britain are encountering any of the accoutrements of the game shooting industry – the hapless magpies in cage-traps, the barricaded woods, the just-released young pheasants without a clue where they are, or their squashed corpses on the roads and piled up in estate compost heaps after the shooters have thrown them away.

I think the urban/rural divide is narrowing, though in odd ways. Intensive farmland is now as industrial as anything in a manufacturing city, for example. But I’m encouraged by the way the urban fringe is opening up a more inclusive idea of what the countryside is, with the expansion of science parks with on-site nature reserves, thatchers growing their own hazel and communities and cooperatives of artisan vegetable gardeners, bakers or furniture makers.

If I could change a single thing in the countryside, it would be to introduce here the Scandinavian right of allemansrätt, giving legal public access to all non-cultivated rural land – woods, moors, riversides. This would transform popular engagement with the natural world and create an army of unofficial wardens, millions strong.

The countryside champions I most admire include a long line of activists in history, such as Kenneth Allsop in the 20th century, Edward Carpenter and John Clare in the 19th, Margaret Cavendish in the 17th, William Kett in the 16th and John Ball in the 14th century, plus medieval leaders of revolts against the enclosure of commonland. My living hero is George Monbiot for his uncompromising and informed environmental polemics in The Guardian.

I prefer art that captures the ambivalent and often troubled history of the countryside. In painting, I admire Paul Nash’s Second World War work – crashed bombers in the corn, nature absorbing the machine, and in music, George Butterworth’s setting of AE Houseman’s poem sequence A Shropshire Lad. In literature, Ronald Blythe’s journals Word from Wormingford capture the intimacy and conversation of the countryside better even than his book Akenfield.

Richard Mabey is a writer and broadcaster

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