Where to start reading Richard Mabey

To mark the 80th birthday of nature writer Richard Mabey, we look back at the work of the man who birthed a generation of writers fascinated by place, botany and the outdoors.

Tim Dee
Covers of Richard Mabey's books against a botanical background.
Image: Ryan McEachern/Penguin

If Dostoyevsky is supposed to have said that all of Russian literature came out of Gogol’s overcoat; today’s nature-writing boom owes much to the deep pockets of Richard Mabey’s anorak. Now in his ninth decade, Mabey is widely considered the green-fingered father of nature writing in modern Britain

A lifelong amateur naturalist (botanically minded, most of all), Mabey’s full-time writing career began in the early 1970s when, having worked as an editor for Penguin, he published his first book Food for Free. The success of this manual cut a path – more than 20 books followed and he’s still writing now.

The poetry of fact is the Mabey taproot – all his work grows in this way. Every book is hallmarked with a customary blend of imaginative brilliance and scientific acuity. As well as the titles mentioned, he has written on the weather, on cooking, on Gilbert White of Selborne, on the song of nightingales, and much short-order stuff too – nature journalism, country diaries and columns. No one, now or ever before, has said as much of value in one lifetime about Britain’s nature and, so it goes therefore, the nature of Britain. 

His subjects are often vegetative but never inanimate. His horizons are often local but never short-sighted – the first half of his career was rooted in the wooded hills of the Chilterns, the second half has floated in the wetter and flatter borderlands between Suffolk and Norfolk. None of these apparent restrictions made Mabey’s wildlife, or his writing about it, limited or low-key. He cannot write a twee sentence, or a provincial one. He describes growing a garden meadow as he might annotate a botanising expedition up the Amazon.

Mabey knows that nature writing is not the same as nature’s writing. Such knowledge tilts his writing towards the personal. The meaning he takes from nature becomes as much his subject as the flora and fauna under observation. You might make a biography of the whole man by gathering together his writing over decades on swifts, for example, or barn owls. There is not, however, anything possessive about this. No owl is to be owned in any way by Richard Mabey no matter how put into words by him.  It is this example, above all, that has most influenced the way we all see nature today and it has powerfully shaped the way many write about it too.

Food for Free (1972)

Many of Richard Mabey’s books read as ahead of their time: he seems to have been presciently in touch with what was going on in nature years before the rest of us. His first book Food for Free appeared decades before foraging became a thing. The idea had come to him after holidays in Norfolk where he’d observed local people still harvesting wild food: “shellfish, samphire, fennel, sea spinach”.

Food for Free is a practical guide to what is good to pick and eat. But it had a radical agenda too, exploring our cultural links with plants and nature that extend far back in time but which have survived, and resetting our thinking about farming and food production. Its first publishers were cautious. They thought the book’s title ungrammatically vulgar and likely to date and suggested instead it be called Edible Plants of Hedgerow Bottoms. When it became a best seller they had the good grace to apologise. It is still in print and nowadays pays its author, so he has said, a pension.

When working in the early 1970s for Penguin in their west London offices at Harmondsworth, Mabey spent time exploring the nearby area that was new to him: it was a manmade edge-land, what we might now call an anthropogenic eco-tone, with disused canals, new housing estates, playing fields, gasometers, abandoned factories and gravel pits. Realising just how much habitat this mongrel terrain offered wildlife, Mabey went looking and, as a result, wrote The Unofficial Countryside.

It is a foundation text, documenting the rise of urban wildlife and understanding the biological value of such apparent non-places (gardens have higher densities of breeding birds than most farm and woodland countryside). Indeed, most of modern nature in Britain is urbanised today and this book showed that was to be the coming news. It also (and importantly) loved the unloved nature of these places, and loved also their hard-to-love species, the invader, the pest, and the weed. It is an unlikely optimistic book.

“The world of the real is fantastically important with me,” Richard Mabey has said.  “At readings, people occasionally ask about my spirituality. They assume because I’m at times rhapsodic about nature that I’ve gone into a new realm, but I don’t really understand what the word spiritual means. I am deeply a materialist; I don't want to have a metaphorical relationship with something beyond its reality. And, if materialist has a bad ring, call me a ‘matterist.’”

His great gift to all, over nearly 50 years, has been precisely that – countless non-invasive and non-depleting diggings in the hard matter of the wild world, repeated deliveries of the livingness of life. Mabey has never seen one in the wild but writes bewitchingly about the moonflower in his Cabaret of Plants (2015), describing also how the cactus fascinated the great botanical artist and English resident of Brazil, Margaret Mee. As if some almighty natural power was watching over events in the week of Mabey’s 80th birthday, a specimen of the moonflower at the Cambridge University botanical began to bloom for the first time. We don't give any quarter to magical thinking regarding nature –our man has told us so, many times – but there was something very definitely Mabey about that.

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