THE WEDNESDAY BOOK: A heartening tale of rural regeneration

Nature Cure Richard Mabey Chatto & Windus, pounds 12.99/pounds 11.99 (free p&p) from 0870 079 8897
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Indy Lifestyle Online
THE MYTH of the English countryside held sway for most of the 20th century and is still extraordinarily powerful: the countryside is the essence of the nation's identity; the thatched cottage and bluebell wood are where England is most English. The countryside is a place not only of natural beauty but also of enduring values: courtesy, honesty, unselfishness, patriotism, and a stable and unthreatening social order.

Like all myths, this one had truth in it; it reflects the countryside much as it was 100 years ago. But the myth, which always ignored half the country, has become degraded and dishonest because it has persisted while the countryside changed profoundly. Now it has ended up as a middle- class residential fantasy of restored Georgian vicarages with Aga kitchens, low crime, good schools and green Wellingtons.

Richard Mabey's achievement, almost single-handed, has been to rescue England's modern countryside from myth, and enable us to look at it afresh. It is a very different place to the one that poets such as Edward Thomas knew: a land of industrial farming, tightly-managed nature reserves and ever-encroaching suburbs. But much still is wonderful, if you know where to look.

Mabey made it come alive in a series of original and much-lauded books, beginning in 1972 with Food For Free, his beguiling guide to edible wild plants. He has been able to do so because he found a new voice. He engages actively with the countryside: all his encounters with birds, flowers, history, people, are mediated through his own reserved, gentle but very strong personality.

Mabey is a radical, inheritor of an old English tradition, against all forms of authoritarianism and always supporting the underdog, be it person or plant. Yet he is a naturalist of wonderful skills. While his fellow Sixties rebels became social workers, teachers and lecturers, Mabey became an expert botanist.

Nature Cure tells the story of his mental breakdown, which perversely followed from his biggest commercial success: the compendious encyclopaedia of wildflower folklore, Flora Britannica. Many writers would make the breakdown central; Mabey concentrates on his recovery, brought about by the care of good friends, falling in love, and moving house. He left the Chiltern beechwoods where he had spent his life and, full of trepidation, decamped to the Norfolk Broads.

The core of the book is his exploration of his new landscape. It feels a privilege to share it, watching him unpick the layers of watery Norfolk, with dazzling skill and the warmest of hearts, as his troubled mind heals. Here is the modern English countryside brilliantly delineated as it is, without Agas, without green wellies, without myth. That someone can show it to us still is a cause for celebration.

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