Michael McCarthy: A literary spell of warm weather

Nature Notebook: Each essay feels like an outing with a knowledgeable yet unpompous guide to somewhere new and fascinating
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The Independent Online

Spring came last week and so did its first notable event, though not in a flowering, an emerging or a singing, but in a publication: Richard Mabey published his essays. It might still be freezing outside, but getting hold of A Brush With Nature in early March was like being given an unseasonable spell of warm weather in which everything in the natural world suddenly bursts into life.

This is the man who is now by common consent Britain's foremost nature writer at his most accessible, dealing in nearly 100 essays written during the past 25 years with nightingales and skylarks, with hornets and orchids, with the Barbizon painters and Derek Jarman's garden in the shadow of the Dungeness nuclear power station, with Andalusia and the Cevennes and all their teeming wildlife. Each one feels like an outing, a trip with a supremely knowledgeable yet unpompous guide to somewhere new and fascinating, but they are written with edge as well: the author is that remarkable figure, a botanist who is a radical.

Mabey's gifts are a very great technical knowledge of the natural world, as lightly worn as Edward Gibbon's classical learning, and an intense engagement with nature conveyed in descriptions which are startlingly fresh without ever seeming showy.

In this he reminds me most of Edward Thomas, the wonderful poet who focused on the English countryside and was killed in the First World War at the age of 39. But here is a conundrum: we remember Thomas as a poet, but until he was 36, in 1914, his whole output was in prose, and he had never written a line of verse. It was only after a meeting with, and a suggestion from, the American poet Robert Frost, that he began to turn his engagement with the natural world into poetry.

Of course, there were accents and voices and indeed a whole poetic tradition open to Thomas that are not open today, but one wonders if the same thought has never occurred to Richard Mabey? Not that it matters; buy A Brush With Nature – published by BBC Books at £12.99 – and you'll find spring has come early.

Pikes and poetry

A month ago I wrote here about another First World War poet and nature writer, one who survived, Edmund Blunden. The context was his poem The Pike, and the very different pike poem written by Ted Hughes, with the suggestion that comparing and contrasting them might be a fascinating exercise. Edmund Blunden's daughter Margi has now contacted me to say any such efforts would be considered for the Edmund Blunden website she runs, www.edmundblunden.org. If you feel like trying, email me at m.mccarthy@independent.co.uk and I will put you in touch.