Posted on: May 10th, 2015
My experience of nature as a child was in the suburban south, where snipe would flush from the ditches by the railway, we tracked grass snakes on the banks of the Basingstoke Canal and cuckoos called from the exotic wilderness of the army training grounds.
I've had a lifetime working with nature and I owe it all to the spark kindled in me by those suburban landscapes. I have a deep respect for the un-wild wild-lands of my youth and the edge-lands that connect our modern lives with nature. These places are a blend of the unseen, neglected and frayed back-story of modern human lives and the restorative miracle of nature which reclaims these places despite all pitted against it.
Rob Cowen's Common Ground is an elegy for edge-lands, for the small harp-shaped common whose story he tells movingly, poetically and with respect and knowledge. It is a place he learns to know and to love. Edge-lands are the unknown and under-valued countryside on the margins of our urban existence.
In the northern English urban-fringe landscapes they are a special blend of rapidly-built industrial towns layered on top of a more ancient rural landscape. As a nature book, this would stand alongside many of the best, but it’s much more than a book on nature in the urban-fringe: it’s a remarkable and moving fusion of natural history, fiction and biography.
Rob Cowen tracks effortlessly between styles: he writes good informative nature writing that is clear, accurate and not afraid to tackle contentious issues. He gives depth to his natural history themes by accurate essays on important topics that illuminate rather than hector.
There are pockets of fiction, uncomplicatingly stretching the facts he observes into credible back-stories, giving richness to mere observation and written much as Henry Williamson told us the story of Tarka the Otter. All of this is held together by a rich overlay of Cowen's own highly original observations and feelings for his patch and the story of a period in his life of a new job and home and facing the anxieties and exhilarations of fatherhood.
Cowen follows in the tradition of the best of our nature writers by focusing on the story of his local place and the observations of its wildlife and people’s use of the land. In 1765 Gilbert White began a tradition of nature writing focused on place. In White’s Natural History of Selborne, we learn of the beech woods, meadows and lanes of the Hampshire countryside.
White explained important detail about birds, plants and history and in so doing he opened his readers’ minds to the bigger messages nature tells us about our place in our environment, inspiring future generations of naturalists and scientists.
Like White, Cowen's writing is personal and observational; like White, his writing has a clarity and economy of words that makes his work easy to follow and infectious in its pace. And like White, the reader is left thinking harder about our relationship with nature and wild places.
Cowen is so taken with this common that at times you wonder how much he chronicled the common and how much this story has taken him over to tell his story. Cowen is not afraid to tell the reader directly of the big themes in his life: his redundancy, moving home, starting a family. Just as powerfully, he opens our minds to the big themes in nature. He feels for wildlife harmed by thoughtless human actions, he regrets the lack of outdoor freedoms people have today and he believes that the extraordinary ordinary places like his common deserve greater respect.
He tackles big and contentious issues of the moment, such as the badger cull, hunting and our disconnect with nature. But Cowen’s campaigning is done in a quiet voice, as though given personally as under-stated wisdom offered modestly as helpful advice to a friend. It makes the case for nature more effectively for this.
This book feels good from the start, it is well-made by Hutchinson and at over 300 pages there's enough space to tell all of Cowen's story. This book has a sure form with each chapter coherent in its focus on a distinct wildlife element of the common, the foxes, hares, may-flies or owls. The extended essays on swifts, may-flies, owls and the themes of each chapter are lucid, informative and placed well in the book and so never bore.
As the book tells nature’s story, so too the stages in Cowen’s own transitional life from London-based career writer to Yorkshire family man weave elegantly and unforced into his experience of nature on his common.
Common Ground is a richly-told story. Cowen has a rapid-fire writing style with a clarity, pace and precision in his use of words that is rare amongst nature writers. Page after page, there is poetic prose which uses words sparsely – always light, tight and meaningful. Never mawkish or purple,
Cowen has a gift for punctuating his detailed narrative with stand-out short, rich almost Haiku-like lines of prose that spring off the page, illuminating each theme of his story in each chapter. This makes the book a powerful vehicle for the story he tells of a place, its context and his own life. In time, I can see his writing being the source of quotations that today we would seek from John Muir, Aldo Leopold and Richard Jefferies.
To future writers, Cowen's writing sits confidently with the strikingly successful and justifiably popular new nature writers who are bringing this genre bang up to date, such as Helen MacDonald and Robert Macfarlane. Cowen has as much of the compelling blend of personal natural history observation written in an engaging and competent literary style as any other writer today.
If his really was the last era to have the freedoms and access to nature that generations before had, then this book shows that not only will our understanding of nature be poorer, but so too will our understanding of ourselves.
Common Ground by Rob Cowen is published in Hardback and e-book by Hutchinson 7 May