A pioneer of British nature writing, Richard Mabey has always been years ahead of his time. So how does he think the pandemic will change our relationship to the natural world?
After a year of virus-plagued humans observing with new wonder how wildlife boosts our wellbeing, the conclusion of the man who invented the burgeoning “nature cure” genre is unexpected. Nature, declares Richard Mabey, makes us ill. He was first told this by his fellow writer, Kathleen Jamie, and it made Mabey “think very much more deeply about the whole panoply of what ‘nature’ means,” he says. “Bacteria and viruses and man-eating tigers and predatory Asian hornets are also all part of nature. At times we need to defend ourselves from ‘nature’ but also row back from the value judgments we make about certain parts of the natural world, because we need the whole thing kicking together if the biosphere, including us, is to survive.”
Mabey, who has just celebrated his 80th birthday, has been a pioneer in British nature writing and environmental thinking for five decades. He is not a contrarian but has consistently interrogated and challenged prevailing patterns of thinking in more than 30 books (so many it is difficult to conclusively count them). Nature is a “criminally abused word”, he says. And he criticises the simplicity of the assumption that we have been reconnecting with nature in the wake of the pandemic’s lockdowns. “I’m particularly aroused by this term ‘reconnection with nature’, given that we are all every moment every breath of our lives very connected with it. I hate to say any words in support of our great leader but at one point during lockdown Boris Johnson used the phrase: ‘We must be humble in the face of nature.’ He was thereby putting the pandemic on the side of nature. As we hopefully mature in our understandings of our relationship with the world outside, we have to move towards a much more broad-based concept of what nature means. When people say: ‘Yeah! Go out and reconnect with nature! Nature makes you well!’ in fact they are just talking about a cherry-picked selection – trees and birds and flowers.”