A new genre of writing is putting centre stage the interconnectedness between human beings and the wild
According to: The Guardian
'It was Findings, a book by the Scottish poet Kathleen Jamie, that brought my attention to this genre' ...
Here's a slim book to squeeze into that last corner of the holiday suitcase. It coins a new word for a new enthusiasm - corvophile - and it's guaranteed to ensure that you never look at a crow in quite the same way again. Published this week, Mark Cocker's Crow Country is the latest addition to a new genre of writing. It doesn't quite fit to call it "nature writing", because what makes these books so compelling - and important - is that they put centre stage the interconnections between nature and human beings. So Cocker doesn't just write about crows - breeding, feeding habits, patterns of flight and roosting - but the impact of his fascination with these big, raucous birds on him, his family and, in turn, the impact of humans on crows. (They've cracked the art of opening bin liners on the M4 to rifle through leftovers). The point is that nature is no longer something to be studied from a position of scientific detachment, but an experience, a relationship in which human beings are as much part of nature as any so called wildlife.
It was Findings, a book by the Scottish poet Kathleen Jamie in 2004, that first brought my attention to this genre. In her essays on Scottish landscapes, she charts her observation of a peregrine nesting in the hills above her house between loading the washing machine and looking after her children. Since then I've devoured these books - for example, Richard Mabey's Nature Cure or Robert Macfarlane's The Wild Places, published next month - which map a British landscape as rich and as full of wonder as anything we might find by catching a flight abroad, if we only are attentive enough to notice.
That is one of Cocker's central points. A long-standing ornithologist, he challenges the bird twitchers' preoccupation with scarcity by writing a whole book about one of our most common birds - and least liked, because no one claims there is anything cute about a corvid. As he writes, "a really significant element in ascribing beauty to a thing lies not within itself but in the quality of our attention to it". Stop for a moment to examine closely a leaf or a blade of grass, and even these commonplace things become extraordinary. We share these islands with well over a million corvids and yet we have learned to ignore them, so Cocker's task is to try and get us to look again. After his description of the spectacle of 40,000 gathered at the rookery near his home in Norfolk, it will be hard to ever treat them with dismissive contempt again.
What Cocker is doing for the corvid, Roger Deakin, in his book Wildwood, published last month, has done for woods and wood. He tracks the many ways he experienced them, from the wood of his pencil to the timbers of his old Suffolk home. Deakin's earlier book, Waterlog, in which he describes an aquatic journey around Britain swimming in ponds, lakes and rivers, became a cult hit. Deakin aptly cites Keats at the beginning of Wildwood to account for his quest over the past two decades (he died last year) to describe "taking part in the experience of things". His books re-introduce a keyboard- and screen-oriented culture to materials and the knowledge economies of water and wood, which have played such large roles in making us who we are.
Part of what makes the genre so counter-cultural is that it advocates a patient attentiveness, a kind of waiting that is so often derided as a waste of time in an age obsessed with purpose, targets and goals. One reads of Cocker spending hours with frozen fingers and toes watching out for rooks that don't arrive or driving hundreds of miles to track down elusive rookeries, pursuing a fascination that, frankly, astonishes all around him (including his own family). It's a point Cocker picks up on, and asks why is this kind of enduring enthusiasm regarded as "weird" or "sad" - as his teenage daughter's friends put it? Have our interests become so undemanding, easily dropped and often used towards another purpose (career, profit) that we regard someone who spends several years of his life pursuing one obscure passion as at best eccentric, at worst nutty?
The genre relates to a much broader question; it links to the success of the BBC's Springwatch and Autumnwatch programmes, and the surprise series Coast. As globalisation seems to strip out the distinctiveness of place - Starbucks in every high street - we have a renewed fascination in this small set of islands. Just as it is easier than ever to hop on a plane and find yourself anywhere in the world, there's a counter-reaction and a new impetus to search out what's immediately around you. In part, it is perhaps driven by the increasing sense of the fragility of the natural world; we need to know what we are fast losing.
There's also a backlash against a culture that is increasingly virtual; so much experience is mediated by electronic gadgets that entail sensory deprivation - of touch, of smell, of certain sounds. Meanwhile, our obsession with comfort and safety not only deprives our children of the sense of freedom inspired by outdoors, a fact we now frequently lament, but it deprives adults as well: how many of us see stars on a regular basis? Or remember the feeling of getting wet or cold? Or see the thick darkness of a night free of city street lights, or hear the call of an owl at night?
We need that attentiveness to nature to understand our humanity, and of how we fit, as just one species, into a vast reach of time and space. Cocker keeps a flint pebble in his pocket (all these writers mention the pebbles lined up on their desks), which is 70m-90m years old. He points out that rooks followed the spread of farming from the Middle East to Europe and the clearing of woodland, so that every rook call carries the echo of a Neolithic axe.
The floods in Yorkshire last month were a sharp reminder of what happens when we don't understand the land on which we live. The sight of thousands of flooded homes made us realise what many previous generations would never have forgotten about the way in which water has to move through land. Renewing our relationship with the natural world, on which our wellbeing depends, is at the heart of this genre of writing - but it presses its case not with statistics and fear of apocalyptic scenarios of global warming, but with seduction, urging on readers an aesthetic case for the spectacular beauty that lies beyond their windscreen if they can be bothered to stop the car and get out.
It's the British equivalent in the 21st century to John Muir, the legendary writer who founded the US Sierra Club and Yosemite National Park, and who in 1901 wrote that "thousands of tired, nerve-shaken, over-civilised people are beginning to find out that going to the mountains is going home". We may have hills rather than mountains, but that's what summer holidays should be about - going home.
· Madeleine Bunting is writing a book on North Yorkshire, The Plot, to be published by Granta