Published by University of Virginia Press on 2005
Genres: Nature, Essays
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Early in Nature Cure Richard Mabey returns continually to the swift, who in its spectacular migration may not touch down for well over a year. In Ted Hughes’s phrase, the reappearance of the swifts tells us that "the globe’s still working." When we encounter the author in the opening pages of this powerful memoir, his corner of the globe is decidedly not working. A deep depression has left him alienated from his work and his family, financially insecure, and has cost him the Chiltern home in which he has lived his entire life. The open flatlands of his new home in East Anglia--an area now dominated by agriculture, and once so desolate that it harbored an inland lighthouse--could not be more different from the dense Chiltern woods he is leaving behind. Mabey wonders frankly if this move is a crucial part of his becoming, finally, a true adult, or if it is just the latest step in the wrong direction his life has mysteriously taken.
Mabey fears that he, like the swift, may be too specialized--given to an intensely specific way of life which, when threatened, leaves him with nowhere to turn. A life spent observing nature has taught him that any creature, even an entire species, might be made suddenly obsolete by the shifts of the world. Just how adaptable is he? He leaves the Chilterns with a near-complete set of the works of John Clare and an antique microscope, but without a frying pan. From now on he will have to think about a complete life, not just those bases he touched as a writer following his calling.
It is through this escape to another life, this "flitting," that his healing begins, in often unexpected ways. Mabey’s despair stems from an inability to connect with his writing and with the nature that inspires it; the book’s power lies in the way he relates this distance from nature to a larger problem in modern life--and in the remarkable process by which his reengagement with nature leads Mabey out of his depression and back to passion and wonder.
Nature Cure describes well-known naturalist and author Richard Mabey’s recovery from a severe depression. We find him at the start of the book in bed, blankly gazing at the wall. Encouraged by friends and realizing the need for a change of air, he uproots himself from the family house in the Chilterns where he and his sister have lived for 110 years between them, and heads off to East Anglia to live in a room in a farmhouse. His room is “like a small forest” with “more oak inside it than out.” Here he strings up a series of low-energy lamps and makes his nest, amazingly not with a computer but two manual typewriters.
Analyzing the root cause of depression
Throughout, Mabey describes his breakdown and steady recovery with his characteristic laid-back style, like your favorite uncle relating exploits from a distant past. We get a glimpse of what may have caused his freefall into depression when he describes what it takes to be a full-time writer: “doggedness to be alone in a room for a very long time.”
His honesty is admirable. Owning up to depression is never easy, even these days, perhaps especially for a successful writer at the pinnacle of his career (he had just completed the epic and lauded Flora Brittanica). Even more difficult was when depression robbed him of his desire to write. “It made me lose that reflex, it was like losing the instinct to put one foot in front of the other.” But obviously Mabey regained that reflex, and how he did is very touching. Through writing he began to unlock “pieces of me that had been dormant for years.”
His style is warmly conversational, making the book easy and pleasurable to read, despite the subject matter. He gently leads you from subject to subject, so that you forget where the conversation started. One moment he is describing wild horses on Redgrove Fen, and his musings about their origins leads to cave paintings in France and then to local Stone Age flint mines in Norfolk, and somehow to Virginia Woolf and moats and the author Roger Deakin. Is this what he refers to later as “free-range reading?”
A criticism was brewing in my mind – that Mabey was simply too nice. But then around halfway he criticizes David Attenborough! I had to re-read the paragraph to make sure I was not mistaken. I wasn’t. He even called a scene from Attenborough’s “The Life of Mammals” a freak show.
Nature Cure is definitely a recommended read for anyone interested in good writing about nature. More specifically, the cure he describes might well be of benefit to others suffering from depression too.