Telling it like it is

This week I was reading a newspaper feature on the natural history writer Richard Mabey that revealed a certain tetchiness about the representation of nature as an entirely positive – not to say cosy -icon.

 “Bacteria and viruses and man-eating tigers and predatory Asian hornets are also all part of nature. At times we need to defend ourselves from ‘nature’ but also row back from the value judgments we make about certain parts of the natural world, because we need the whole thing kicking together if the biosphere, including us, is to survive.”

Richard Mabey in a Guardian interview with Patrick Barkham

Someone once said to me “you know your trouble is that you constantly set up a lovely scene in your writing and then you go and spoil it!” At the time I was a bit rattled by the remark but increasingly I think it was bang on the mark: – that’s exactly what I do; but not because I enjoy raging around my most elegiac visions but because that’s the way the world is. As I’ve said many times before, (sometimes even at a funeral service), love is impossible to imagine without loss – or at least the threat of loss. The greatest joys are too fugitive to hang a lifeline on and so you just have to throw yourself headlong into the torrent and hope for the best. The best writers can inscribe a single moment of the ebb and flow of life without for a moment implying that this is somehow the nature of it.

By way of an example I offer the blackthorn which, today, was in glorious flower outside our son’s allotment. You could never say the flowers were strongly perfumed but they were there in such profusion that the nearby air was infused with the richness of their nectar. Their fruit will appear in autumn, hard and bitter as aloes, and which are utterly unapproachable until they have seen a frost or two and are infused in gin and sugar. The picking of them is a genuinely Good Friday experience because their dreadful thorns will fight you for every berry and leave a septic puncture wound for which you will not forgive them until two years hence in November when you break open the mature bottle of sloe gin. Blessings come with their troubles – they’re contrary sides of the same currency.

So if I write about rats on the allotment I’m not breaking the code of omerta on the darker side of growing things; it’s a touch of duende, of the whole as against the partial. I’d love to be able to show a photo of me in a 1920’s wraparound apron and headscarf; all vermilion lipsticked and gathering sheaves of golden corn but I’d look silly in Madame’s clothes.

The control of rats on any allotment is a necessity mainly because any system of composting except doing it in a hermetically sealed retort, puts two features of rat heaven together – namely food and shelter. Consequently we often meet one another in the way that erstwhile enemies pass in the street; with grudging respect. Not using poisons for obvious reasons, means that the choice lies between chasing them with a garden fork which is likely to result in serious injury, though rarely to the rat; or trapping them as quickly and lethally as possible. Of course turning the heap regularly stops them from building nests and having babies, but they’ll always be there – close by. Today I woke with a possible solution to the challenge, because the problem with trapping is that rats are not stupid and once they’ve seen uncle Pentstemon meet his maker with peanut butter on his whiskers, they’ll avoid peanut butter as if it were made by Rentokil. But we have another problem apart from rodents – which is my fondness for Camembert cheese.

Camembert is surprisingly difficult to buy in prime condition. Supermarkets usually sell it refrigerated so hard it is beyond maturing and completely tasteless. However the local Co-op must be managed by a Frenchman because their Camembert is alway perfect straight out of the chiller. But after a couple of days the smell begins to leach out of our fridge and fills the kitchen. It smells as if there may be a dead sheep behind the washing machine and Madame has a hatred for dead sheep. Normally I would put up with the glorious ammoniac stink of a good one but it has all come to a head. Double wrapping will not do at all and I have been given an ultimatum. Either the cheese goes or she does. It’s an intolerable choice.

And so – this morning I thought suddenly that Camembert might make the most seductive ever bait for the rat traps! Imagine the potential slaughter of six traps baited with lumps of Camembert – I mean – at least twice in each one; twelve fat rats vanquished from the face of the allotments and universal praise from our neighbours who are far too polite to contemplate such a bold plan. I’ll feed the rats to the foxes and film them with the trailcam – which will look great on the allotment WhatsApp page. I shan’t charge a penny for the service – unlike the Pied Piper of Hamelin – because 1000 guilders seems a bit steep – and I’ll be allotment Rep by the end of the year as long as the vegans don’t gang up on me.

My uncle Charles was a rat catcher – seriously – and he would always leave the antidote to his cyanide at home so he’d know where to find it. He was a bit eccentric and would occasionally resort to the shotgun and cheerfully loose off half a dozen cartridges after a rat. He was also a terrible shot, so his chicken houses were always infested with them. My Aunty Dingles, his serially adulterous but glamorous wife, (don’t ask!) also made the best clotted cream in Berkshire which is a county not known for clotted cream so maybe it wasn’t that good.

And that – considered as a whole – is probably why I prefer to tell it as it is. It’s kind of comforting not to have to live up to impossible role models and I was at least spared that fate.

What’s your game sunshine?!!

Still crazy after all these years

IMG_20191118_162125I’m a little younger than Richard Mabey – I checked – and the courses of our respective lives have been very different, but there are bits that coincided too. I was reading the first of the short pieces in his book – “A Brush with Nature” last night.  Yesterday we were feeling a bit stir crazy after a morning in the flat so we went around to Toppings to check out their natural history section and then, because there was nothing that caught my eye, we wandered down to Waterstones where I found the book amongst an entire case of ‘nature writing’. I bought it because he’s never written a dud book.

The first of his concerns – about the (then) dearth of nature writing has, I think, been more than abundantly  addressed. There are shelves full of the stuff, some of them proper old potboilers of course, but some real and distinctive voices who have changed the way I see things.  I’m sure that if Richard Mabey and me could lay our lifetime bibliographies side by side we’d find they overlapped in many cases.  Yes I read Henry Williamson voraciously when I was young.  In fact I ploughed my way through all 15 volumes of  “A Chronicle of Ancient Sunlight” and many of his other novels and books before an increasing sense of creepiness led me to the disturbing discovery of his right wing politics – and that was that, the affair was over. Yes, I’ll bet, to Richard Jefferies, Gilbert White, JA Baker, DH Lawrence, and all the others. I bought J W White’s “Bristol Flora”  although I couldn’t afford it, and I’m glad I did because I’ve spent many hours poring over it and remembering places, let alone plants, that no longer exist. Too many books to list – I’m a magpie – and could never say no to a second hand book that just might be useful one day

After we left art school we both found ‘temporary’ jobs in horticulture, Madame at Long Ashton Research Station where she assisted the Trials Officer, and me as a groundsman and bus driver at Clifton College. Working outdoors gave me the chance to look for plants, and even then I kept notebooks – I found one of them when we were moving house.  It was badly affected by wet, and the ink had run but there were sketches and even a couple of spore prints as well as yards of notes. It seemed, at the time, as if the natural world was static – what didn’t get done today could wait until tomorrow. I was loose in a library of botanical temptations that I could return to later, and so I could peep into a room, make a note of the location and vow to come back later when there was more time, many plants I didn’t have time to identify went on to the  back burner and now they’ve gone.

Because something’s changed and there is no more time – and of course we all know what it is. Environmental degradation, extinctions and the rapid onset of climate change have eaten through my to-do list, and because of it my whole mindset has changed. What might once have been presumed as the permanent features of nature have become fugitive pleasures. Each cuckoo might be the last I’ll ever hear, and the flash of iridescent blue flying low ahead of us on the canal might be the last kingfisher. The major key of reliable joys has modulated into the minor key of loss.  There are days when a walk feels like a day in a wartime clearing station, a sad search for survivors. Yes of course I can go and find some of them marooned in a reserve, complete with paths and fences and informative displays, a kind of zoo for threatened species, but I don’t care for zoos and where’s the fun if you already know it’s there?

Walking one day in Cornwall fifty years ago a heron took off from a pond just close to where we were.  My heart froze as this ancient looking creature cranked itself into the air and wheeled away. I’m not a twitcher.  I can’t imagine the mindset of one bridegroom whose wedding I took, and who I had to order not to bring his pager to church – “just one day off – please”  He once drove overnight to Scotland to join a throng of fellow twitchers watching some rare migrant.  Not my scene. My haunt is the ordinary, the everyday and my sadness is that it’s thinning out. I probably wouldn’t drive to Cornwall just to see a heron, but life without herons altogether would be immeasurably poorer.

We are less confident and  more strident because we’re losing the lyrical sense and it’s eating away at some immaterial part of our being. And yet there is room to hope because  those shelves of books in Waterstones are, in their own way, deeply subversive; for an attentive reader they’re just a step towards the resistance. The holy grail of nature writing today is not to bathe the reader in a glow of purposeless sentiment – not to provide stunning but ultimately sterile pictures of lovely things, but to challenge – to take the reader to the casualty clearing station and invite them to join the battle.