My recent mini-story posts were inspired by Rob Cowen’s Common Ground, a book I can thoroughly recommend.
It’s one of those nature meditations that get under your skin: a compelling personal story, enhanced by fictional scenes and factual sections, which brings to vivid life a small patch of ground – he calls it the edge-land – close to a built-up area.
To hear a short extract, click on this picture.
The humourist and playwright Alan Bennett called it a “cracking book and having finished it I now feel deprived”. Fellow comic and travel presenter Michael Palin found it “sensitive, thoughtful and poetic … leading us into a whole new way of looking at the world”. As for me, it took me straight back to my suburban childhood and the neglected acres we used to explore and map as if they were exotic far-off lands.
In this paragraph Rob Cowen attempts to pin down the importance of place:
When people talk of ‘knowing’ or ‘belonging’ somewhere, this is what they mean. Familiarity comes with the overlaying of our experiences, memories and stories … We project all we are and all we know onto landscape. And, if we’re open to it, the landscape projects back into us … a melding and a meshing that can feel a bit like love … I not only see where I’ve walked before, but who I was when I walked there … And isn’t this how we navigate this sphere … drawing cognitive maps that make sense of the realm beyond our comprehension? Our connection to the world is always two things at once: instinctive and augmented.
When I think back, much of the literature I loved as a child was about exploration and its associated adventures – and if the story had a map, so much the better! This started early with Winnie the Pooh and Wind in the Willows, continued with Swallows and Amazons and progressed via the Narnia books to Lord of the Rings.
I was studying ‘grown-up’ English Literature by the time the Earthsea books were published but I made much use of them when I began teaching. And if you wanted kids to write at length, a good starting-point was to ask them to draw a map of an imaginary place or even world.
Recently, though, I’ve been drawn to reflections on the real world – perhaps the true-life adventure of the future will be in preserving that from destruction. Writers like Cowen and the many he acknowledges as mentors – the likes of Robert Macfarlane, Helen Macdonald, Simon Armitage, Mark Cocker, WG Sebald, George Monbiot, Ian Sinclair and Will Self (to mention the few that I’ve got round to reading!) – seem to be a vital vanguard of a new cultural tradition that celebrates the fragile link between humankind and the natural world.
I’m familiar with these British authors but I hope and believe that there are similar kinds of nature writing going on all over the world. Where wild-life photography and TV documentary have gone, literature appears to be following. We really are in need of some good-news stories and fresh narratives – what could be more thrilling than the notion of gifting a healthy natural world to future generations?
We could start, perhaps, by taking the kids out for some nature rambles …