The Reading Room

In Praise of Richard Mabey

Richard Mabey is one of Britain’s best loved and most respected nature writers, An author whose work I have long admired since first reading his renowned work on food foraging, Food For Free, first published in 1972. Mabey has long championed that which grows on our proverbial doorstep, giving particular attention to the wide variety of wildlife and plants to be found in the most urban of settings.

In Food For Free, Mabey showed how plants we shrug off as common weeds have a rightful place on the kitchen table and for us to rethink our approach to food and how we obtain it. Mabey has been a staunch conservationist all of his life but his way of communicating his concerns for the health of the planet was always done in the most endearing of ways, his books do not preach but celebrate our natural habitat with well-timed reminders of what our dash for modernisation has done to both wildlife and the landscape we all inhabit.

Mabey’s own personal journey has not been an easy one, he has battled severe depression which saw him relocate to Norfolk and find healing in its flatlands through a reinvigorated sense of wonder at nature and discovery. In Nature Cure, his beautiful telling of this period in his life we are reminded of what nature has to offer us in its most basic form. Nature is the most natural of healers and we are fortunate to have it. Mabey’s keen observational eye shows us the beauty and importance of our natural resources and how incredibly diverse it is. In his 1974 book The Roadside Wildlife Book, Mabey explains how nature has adapted to increased road networks, housing and industrial estates, all eating into their green spaces. Roadsides are hosts to a multitude of wildlife and we have all seen how raptors have used busy roads to their advantage in hunting.

In 1980, Mabey wrote in The Common Ground of the killing of raptors such as Hen Harriers and Kites by gamekeepers caring for nothing other than their masters grouse shooting. Forty three years later we are still witnessing barbaric acts by these people, only last week the RSPB described how one Harrier had its head pulled off whilst still alive. It is another example of the divide between humans with money and power and humans and nature without any. Read any of Mabey’s books from the Seventies and Eighties and you will see we have learnt virtually nothing from our greed and ignorance and it is beyond depressing.

For me, these books have never been more important. We have lost so many of our hedgerows in both urban and agricultural settings, homes to an abundance of wildlife. What remains of them are invariably hacked back at the worst possible time by ignorant councils who could care less for our shared earth. Whilst new housing developments are obliged to set aside small patches of land for nature areas and tree planting we must leave space for the ‘wild’ in wildlife. Those areas which Mabey championed in which wild flowers could thrive and play such an important role in preserving our pollinators.

I would recommend any of Mabey’s back catalogue, he has quietly earned his place amongst the greats in his genre. Like his great friend, Ronald Blythe, he represents a period in our recent history I sorely miss whilst managing to remain as relevant as ever.

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