‘Wild Life in a Southern County’ by Richard Mabey.
‘Richard Mabey is among the best writers at work in Britain. I don’t mean among the best nature writers, I mean the best writers, full stop.‘ So says Tim Dee, in his review of Richard Mabey’s latest collection, ‘Turning the Boat for Home‘.
I’m happy to agree, and even happier to share one of the essays that features in this collection; ‘Wild Life in a Southern County’. This is a meditation on the life and works of another hugely influential writer, Richard Jefferies.
‘Wild Life in a Southern County’
Richard Jefferies’ Wild Life in a Southern County was my first encounter with nature writing. I was about twelve years old, and quite content with my rag-bag collection of I-Spy books and bird guides, texts about what was what, and where to find it. When I found my elder sister’s copy of Wild Life, I was mesmerised. Here were thoughts about how animals might think, and how landscapes made you feel. I’d forgotten most of its contents within a month, but the title stuck in my imagination like the aura of a half-recollected dream, or a mantra: wild-life-in-a-southern-county.
I was living in Hertfordshire then, and the only ‘southern’ place I’d been to was the beach at Pevensey. But my emotional compass was already set in that direction. South meant the chalk hills at the top of our road, rising towards the summer sun. South meant a view down along wooded valley, my private heartland, and a thin stream that wound its silver way towards the high Chilterns. In those adolescent years – already an incipient romantic – I would stand at a ritually precise spot at the top of the hill and gaze down that valley in a state of muddled rapture. What I was looking at seemed both wild, numinous, somehow beyond reach and understanding, but also profoundly and anciently English.
No wonder Jefferies chimed with me. Wild Life (and note the powerful separation of those two normally conjoined words) is a collection of free-range essays exploring the author’s unresolved feelings about the relations between the natural and human worlds. It’s set in the very human context of the Wiltshire smallholding where he grew up, but is peopled mostly by non-human species. Jefferies makes the dialectic between these two worlds explicit in his short preface: ‘There is a frontier line to civilisation in this country yet, and not far outside its great centres we come quickly even now to the borderland of nature. . . If we go a few hours journey only, and then step just beyond the highway – where the steam-ploughing engine has left the mark of its wide wheels on the dust – and glance into the hedgerow, the copse, or stream, there are nature’s children as unrestrained in their wild, free life as they were in the veritable backwoods of primitive England.’
But the frontier is porous, fluid, debatable. Living things – humans included – pass across it, in both directions. So do ways of perceiving them, which can be coloured both by the civilised, rational mind or the feral imagination. Later in the preface Jefferies writes that ‘nature is not cut and dried to hand, nor easily classified, each subject shading gradually into another. In studying the ways, for instance of so common a bird as the starling it cannot be separated from the farmhouse in the thatch of which it often breeds, the rooks with whom it associates, or the friendly sheep upon whose backs it sometimes rides.’
This ‘shading’ of subjects is an exact description of Jefferies’ meandering prose-style, and there is, I suspect, an element of rationalisation here of its sometimes chaotic discursiveness. But he was an intuitive ecologist, and this insistence on the connectivity of the natural world is a theme that runs through the book, and justifies his grouping of its contents by habitats. Except that they are not truly natural habitats, but the human landscapes around Coate Farm, near Swindon, where Jefferies was born and lived until he was eighteen: orchard, woodpile, home-field, ash copse, rabbit warren.
But there is sleight of place, and memory, here. Although Wild Life is set in Wiltshire, in the present tense, it was written in Surbiton in 1878-9, more than a decade after the encounters it chronicles. Jefferies was then thirty years old and had moved to suburban, Surrey, to be closer to the London newspaper world. The book is quarried from articles he contributed to the Pall Mall Gazette, early examples of what has become an enduring form in British journalism – the ‘Country Diary’.
Jefferies’ distance from the scenes he is describing (it was also, as we’ll see later, a social distancing) helps account for his fascination with borderlands, and for what is a dominant motif in the book. If the thread which runs through Edward Thomas’ analogous, echoic The South Country (1909) is the pathway, on which he could walk himself up and out of his black moods (Thomas’ published a biography of Jefferies in the same year), the keynote of Jefferies’ Southern County is the hedgerow, in which he can burrow down, away from the messiness of human society.
The hedge is the ‘frontier line to civilisation’. It is a mark of division in the affairs of humans, but a connective tissue for wildlife. It represents refuge, but also a kind of linear commonland. Jefferies recalls, in a later book, how his father used to point with disgust to ‘our Dick poking about in them hedges’, and like the poet John Clare, he is most at home – and at his best as a writer – in the hedge-bottom looking out, not on the hilltop taking imperious (or queasily spiritual) views of the landscape below. In one passage (sub-titled ‘A Hill apparently Enlarged’) he recounts how, peering through a gap in a hedge, he once experienced a kind of optical illusion, in which a hill he knew suddenly appeared vastly higher than it had before. A cloud was resting on its top, and for a while had taken on the exact shape and tone of the hill. With the rest of the range obscured by the hedge, this glimpse through the gap revealed something closer to an alp. The aesthete always lurked, sometimes enlighteningly, sometimes subversively, inside the watchful naturalist.