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.

Nature Cure (2005)

Nature Cure is Richard Mabey’s most personal book. In it he asked, often painfully, what, if anything beyond its own survival, nature might be good for? Specifically, might it bring him back to life? At the end of 1999 he had come into a severe depression. For the first time in his life nature became meaningless. At a loss, in one dark period, he was hospitalised in the same buildings where the great English nature poet John Clare was sent for his madness in the 1800s. You may well cry over these pages.

The chapters that follow about Mabey’s recovery are a matchlessly warm account of being able to regrow meaning in nature (as well as falling in love with a new person and a new place). With a restored freshness of seeing he pays attention to other lives and, so, takes part in the interconnected world once more. Watching barn owls on their dusk shifts over the nearby fields to his new home is good medicine. Even in suffering, and self-healing, it seems, Mabey was ahead of the curve. GPs might prescribe his book today just as they encourage their patients to take a walk rather than a tablet to banish their blues.

The Unofficial Countryside (1973)

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.

Flora Britannica (1996)

The people’s nature is the subject and source for the biggest book of Richard Mabey’s writing life. Although he wrote all of Flora Britannica, much of it is made from the contributions of others. An even more original – and radically democratic – book than Food for Free, this is a people’s flora – the first of its kind in the British Isles and, perhaps, anywhere on Earth.

A decade in the making, contributions were solicited from anyone who cared to report a local name for a wild flower or a memory of the plant or another green recollection. Mabey pressed the lot without killing anything, adding further floral history and some scientific botany. The effect is a polyphonous endorsement of nature-culture: a human culture made from a nature that persists despite species loss, habitat destruction, and climate crisis, a culture also persisting among people often otherwise regarded as de-natured. Organised systematically, plant family by plant family, it declares the whole archipelago to be a wild garden that grows around, but crucially also within, the lives of all the human residents of the same islands.

Cabaret of Plants (2015)

“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.

Turning the Boat for Home (2019)

Finally, there's Mabey's latest book: an anthology of pieces (revised in some cases and all newly threaded together with a valuable and refreshing linking text) written between 1987 and 2016, and a great way of diving into Mabey's writing for newspapers, magazines and anthologies. Even though they span decades, all still seem fresh. Assembled, they make as good a book on modern nature as any I know.  

Tim Dee writes about birds and people and places; he is the author, most recently, of Greenery.

What did you think of this article? Email editor@penguinrandomhouse.co.uk and let us know.

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