BOOK REVIEW / Bulletins from an urban species: 'Landlocked: In Pursuit of the Wild' - Richard Mabey: Sinclair-Stevenson; 18.99 pounds

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The Independent Culture
THE dust-jacket on Richard Mabey's new book describes the author as the most outstanding of contemporary nature- writers and, though this may well be true, I'm not entirely sure of its significance. What, precisely, is nature-writing? Is it a genre in its own right or an uneasy dweller on the borders of other disciplines? Is it good for the digestion? How does it relate to the condition of the planet?

This is a rather Mabey-ish beginning. A number of the pieces in this collection start with a question, often a very interesting one. 'What,' the introductory article asks, 'is landscape?' Much allusive, diverting and knowledgeable speculation ensues, as we follow a trail past the literary peaks of Edward Thomas, John Fowles, Rupert Brooke, down into the geology of the Undercliff at Lyme Regis, out round the Bronze Age heathlands and the 18th-century enclosures, climbing briefly up on horseback with William Cobbett, before ending, in the best traditions of circular rambles, more or less where we started, having arrived at no particular conclusion.

Much journalism is in the same vein, but one used to expect more from a book. Most of the pieces reprinted here first appeared in newspapers and magazines and the quality is correspondingly uneven, from slabs of thinly-disguised travel journalism to meditations on Ruskin's madness for Modern Painters. Throughout, Mabey's approach remains peripatetic, discursive, eclectic - displaying the evidence of much reading and observation, but with a residual intellectual effect akin to phosphorescence: if you blink, you may miss the point. Despite being an admirer of Mabey since his first book, Food For Free, I do not like what has become of his style. As displayed in this book, it strikes me as vaporous, suburban, oddly uninformative and, occasionally, twee. I much preferred the earlier, earthier Mabey of edible fungi and other real things.

This, I guess, is an untypical reaction. I am sure many people will enjoy both the writing and the book. The evidence from the magazine shelves at W H Smith, coupled with the enduring lustre of period ruralism, suggests that there is a huge market for literary evocations of the natural world, and the more questing voles and plashy fens, the better. What's wrong with that?

Nothing, I suppose, except that it is in danger of becoming part of the 'heritage' business that Mabey himself condemns. We are an urban species mourning the loss of its rural habitat, and one of the consequences is that 'nature' now carries a much heavier burden of meaning - spiritual and emotional - than it used to. All but the toughest, most purposeful prose cracks under the strain of self-consciousness.

Mabey's new book encapsulates this dilemma. I also find it lacking in passion. Reflecting on his first book Food for Free, he confesses to having become a 'rather precious wayside nibbler'. In the same way that the Holocaust affected a generation with writer's block, I'm surprised that the carnage currently wrought on Mabey's subject matter - nature - doesn't figure more in these pieces. Is precious wayside nibbling possible in a world which seems bent on destroying its forests and wild places? Isn't it a bit like a postcard from Hiroshima?

These are heavy thoughts for a lightish book, and Mabey would no doubt argue that all nature writing cannot be apocalyptic, that human responses to nature deserve celebration and that in this celebration, and the understanding of it, lies one solution to environmental crisis. I agree, but I would still like less nibbling and a few more good big bites.