In the last year of the old millennium, Richard Mabey, Britain’s foremost nature writer, fell into a severe depression. The natural world – which since childhood had been a source of joy and inspiration for him – became meaningless. Then, cared for by friends, he moved to East Anglia and he started to write again. Having left the cosseting woods of the Chiltern hills for the open flatlands of Norfolk, Richard Maybe found exhilaration in discovering a whole new landscape and gained fresh insights into our place in nature.
Structured as intricately as a novel, truthful, exquisite and questing, Nature Cure is a book of hope, not just for individuals, but for our species.
I have always found that, at moments of stress, feeling claustrophobic about life, there’s nothing like getting out into the fresh air. My first preference is a walk beside the sea, but a beautiful woodland is also great and even just a stroll around the local recreation ground can help. Reading Nature Cure felt like finding a kindred spirit; it’s the first time I’ve read a whole book by Richard Mabey, although I’ve heard him speak, very eloquently, about marginal places and spaces, and it was a revelation.
In Nature Cure, April’s Shelf Help read, Mabey combines nature writing with autobiography, as well as a pinch of historio-geography, to give us an insight into a time in his life during which he struggled with – and against – depression, and how a change of place to somewhere very different to his homeland brought him a fresh perspective. In one sense, Nature Cure is written chronologically – we begin with Mabey about to leave his family home in the Chilterns for the big sky and agricultural landscape of East Anglia and then progress through the chapters to the point at which he is able to be self-sufficient and happy once more. However, the chapters are also thematic, linked to events in the natural world and Mabey’s emotional states, for example chapter 1 is titled Flitting as he prepares to move, then onto Lair, in which Mabey is largely concerned with what makes a home, through Commonplaces, about the common land near his new lodging, The Naming of Parts, and Fancy Work, to the final chapter, The Wild Card.
Some readers have criticised Nature Cure as self-indulgent but I think this misses the point of the book. This is autobiography, infused inextricably with nature, rather than nature writing first and foremost. Nature has always played a key role in Mabey’s life, so it is natural that his changing state of mind – indeed his mental health – should be linked to his ability to appreciate the natural world around him. It is beautifully written throughout, in Mabey’s signature style. There is a delicacy of description that allows you to picture the plant, creature or place, without that aspect being overpowering. In counterpoint, there is also a brutal honesty from Mabey about his condition and his behaviour, which at times is shortsighted, unhelpful, even selfish. He is an unlikely hero, depending of the support of others and of the creatures around him. It also feels didactic, in the sense that we are given something of a roadmap from self-imposed isolation and depression back to self-possession and independence, through interaction with the natural world and key caring, passionate friends and individuals. This is always implicit; Nature Cure is not a how-to.
I mentioned a signature style. While Nature Cure is literary, it is not stuffy or academic, nor yet full of overblown romanticised accounts of the wonders of nature. Mabey is conversational. He sets the scene but is not afraid to digress with a relevant anecdote from his past, or with information about a species, or the theories of naturalists as they relate to the topic at hand. This openness and relative informality meant I finished the book feeling privileged to have been granted such insight into what must have been a difficult and painful time, and full of hope for a positive future. It was a fascinating experience to read this journey, as Mabey describes his loss of ability to appreciate or interact with the world around him, then gradually regains these abilities while exploring and learning to value somewhere quite different from what he considered the ideal British landscape. I especially loved the way he identifies and invests so much in swifts, birds full of associations with spring and new life, and this way this was a burden in some ways, as well as a blessing.
Reading Nature Cure was a wonderful experience for me. For readers with an interest in mental health, as well as readers who love nature writing, I would highly recommend it.
Nature Cure is out now from Vintage in paperback, at £8.99 A review copy of Nature Cure was provided by Vintage, for this review.
May’s Shelf Help read is How to Live: A Life of Montaigne in one question and twenty attempts at an answer by Sarah Bakewell