“I had never noticed before that the canal here was as clear as a chalk stream. Yellow water lilies drooped like balls of molten wax on the surface. Near the edge of the water drifts of newly hatched fish hung in the shallows,” writes Richard Mabey in the opening chapter of The Unofficial Countryside. And that’s just for starters. He goes on to describe how the last swallows of the season are ‘hawking’ for flies over the water, there’s a brilliant spike of purple loosestrife in the distance, and the towpath is ‘festooned’ with wine-tinted hemp agrimony blooms.
You could be forgiven for thinking he is in the country, but this spot is on the edge of London, right next to a large pumping station. And that, really, is the theme of Mabey’s book, for in it he explores nature in its many varied forms in ‘marginal’ landscapes – motorway verges, dockyards, bomb sites, rubbish dumps, a sewage farm, car parks and gravel pits, as well as gardens and parks. He finds plants, birds, insects and animals flourishing in the most unlikely places. And he also records brief sightings of wildlife and plants spotted from the windows of trains, buses and cars. Nature, as he tells us, is remarkably resiliant. But that doesn’t mean it’s OK to destroy te natural world, and he sounds a warning bell for the future, a plea for us to live with nature. “There is a limit to the recuperative powers of the natural world,” he stresses. “It will always fight back, but it cannot survive outright eradication.”
The book really resonates with me because I’ve always been fascinated by the way plants flourish in the oddest locations. The alley at the back of our house produces an ever-chaning display of ‘weeds’ which push their way though a hairline gap between the Tarmac surface and a crumbling wall. All kinds of grasses have taken root, along with dead nettles (red and white), groundsel, shepher’s purse, dandelions, goatsbeard (or possibly hawkbit, I always have problems identifying them), and even the odd forget-me-not and occasional marigold. The plants attract insects, and the insects attract birds, so a tiny (very tiny!) habitat is established, ignored, I suspect, by everyone except me! Even more strangely, a short walk away, there are plants growing out of the top of the stonework on the Victorian railway arches. Who would have thought anything could thrive in such an unnatural environment, with trains thundering alongside, and a busy urban road below!
To be honest, I loved this book so much it’s difficult to know what to mention – I could open it at any page and something to enthuse about. I love Mabey’s writing. His lyrical descriptions of the natural world contrast with his accounts of surrounding urban dereliction, while his emotional responses have a simple honesty. He also includes snippets of prose and poetry, bits of folklore, history, botany and zoology, as well as odd facts about the flora and fauna he enounters.
For example, did you know that a single rosebay willowherb produces 80,000 seeds, each one a ‘superb example of survival engineering’ – little hairy parachutes which will be borne away on the wind. I think that’s pretty amazing, don’t you?
Mabey’s nature writing broke new ground when The Unofficial Countryside was first published in 1973, and it’s every bit as relevant now as it was then and is, I think, very accessible. He celebrates the commonplace weeds and pests that other people may overlook or, worse still, try to eradicate. But he also welcomes rarities and exotics. They all have their own kind of beauty, and they all have a role to play.
A more recent edition has been published by Wiltshire-based Little Toller Books, and it is really beautiful, printed on lovely, thick, smooth paper, with a fascinating introduction from author and psychogeographer Iain Sinclair, whose edgy style and views are a perfect match for Mabey. Equally well chosen are the illustrations by artist Mary Newcomb, who makes connections the rest of us never think of, like electricity pylons and cowebs. Stand inside the pylon and look up, and you can see similar patterns between the two.
I thought this was just perfect in every way. It’s a lovely book to have in a hard print format, and I would urge you all to please read it.