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

Countryfile Magazine - - Contents -

Au­thor Richard Mabey on be­ing an ‘edge­lander’ and his ru­ral cham­pi­ons.

Ihave 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.

I wrote my book 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 jus­tre­leased 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.

“A sight I miss is swal­lows on tele­graph wires, not in threes and fours but hun­dreds”

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’s lat­est book The Cabaret of Plants was pub­lished in Oc­to­ber (Pro­file, £20)

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