Interview | Richard Mabey | shock & awe
A word about the urban wild with naturalist and nature writer Richard Mabey
It’s changed a lot since I lived and worked there in the 1970s, a lot of places have vanished, most notably under the Olympic Park, which back then was an exciting and genuinely wild part of east London. The other place I meandered, and wrote the Unofficial Countryside about, was in west London, near Uxbridge and Heathrow. I still walk there about once a year. It’s a labyrinth that has escaped development, it’s pretty much untouched and still feels exciting.
On urban wildlife
I think that nature’s power is much stronger in the urban rather than the rural context because you get the sense of contrast so sharply. There’s a tremendous metaphorical power in the improbable ability of nature to come into the city. When you’re on Charlotte Street and you see a hobby streaking overhead, it feels miraculous. Urban wildlife is by definition more resilient to human settlement. It also has an astonishment value that’s much higher than elsewhere because the amount of wildlife per head is so much lower.
On nature’s cure
To think of nature as a kind of Prozac is an injustice to the complex relationship humans have with nature. Our experiences with it have huge emotional power – we see the exhaustion of a migrating bird or the sacrifice an adult makes for its young, and it’s a lesson in what it means to be reduced down to the elemental level. Nature should shock you and make you feel pain. Sometimes I go out and I come back in tears.
On science and romance
I have scientific DNA. I think the emotional and the scientific are both about intense observation and both get their power from a sense of wonder. I obsessively track barn owls – at this time of year it is about us being together in the same winter landscape. I see them as my neighbours and I worry about them when it rains and go and check on them. That question, ‘where does a barn owl go in the rain’, is both emotional and scientific.
Once you’ve become a dyed in the wool writer it’s who you are. When I’m out I’m subconsciously making images and stories in my head. It’s about the precision of watching. The framework of observation gives you a framework for your writing. It’s also the discipline of finding the right words. A nature rwrite should respect the relationship between disciplined observations and emotional response. You must observe your own responses. Talk about the two way relationship, go to the very roots of what you feel. Don’t be vague, be precise. Don’t deal in generalities. Be emotional and explorative, but precise.
On green government
I’m as outraged as everyone at the Government reneging on their promise to be the greenest one ever. The new planning documents no longer see biodiversity as essential. The fabric of biodiversity underpins all things, without it everything goes down the tube. NGOs need to stop being so polite, they’ve really sucked up to the government and talked about nature like financiers. We need to launch a head on attack on these new measures. There also needs to be a propaganda campaign to show that the essential protection of the environment doesn’t undermine economic goals. The number of job opportunities created if we adopted a low carbon economy would be enormous.
On the future
The big opportunity now is landscape-scale rebuilding – the joining up of nature reserves and the restoration of flood plains. I see this happening in my home of East Anglia, where reserves are being created that you can talk about in square miles rather than mere hectares. This is already having a significant effect on wildlife.
Interview by Helen Babbs for the spring 2012 issue of Wild London magazine