My last column was about Being a Beast, Charles Foster’s brilliantly eccentric account of his attempts at transmogrification into a badger, otter, fox, deer and swift. It was with considerable delight, therefore (what with all the recent hoo-ha about Bob Dylan’s recent laurels), that I heard that Foster had been award the 2016 Ig Nobel prize for biology.
The prize is awarded each year for “achievements that make people laugh, and then think.” I like that order.
It is a phrase that many exponents of what has come to be known as ‘new nature writing’ would do well to have printed on their coffee mugs. Chief among them is Rob Cowen whose 2015 book, Common Ground springs from much the same impulse as Foster’s: a desire to reconnect with the nonhuman world that surrounds us.
For his foray into the wild, Cowen scours the ‘edge-land’, the stretch of nondescript no-man’s land where the suburbs of Bilton, a small town in West Yorkshire, meets the countryside. Mysterious forces drew the author back to his childhood haunt: “That frontier called me. Maybe a speck of soil carried in a starling’s foot had been drawn down deep into my repository system… Whatever it was, I felt a sense of returning, like a bee to a hive.”
This alone will give you a sense that Common Ground is a book to be read in comfy slippers. Anything tighter and your curling toes may blister.
Every smidge and slither, every tweet and woof, is milked for its poetic potential. Even the local buses are not safe from this Hamlet of hamlets: “I read 2B: Bilton glowing on their LED destination boards. ‘To be’ indeed,” he rhapsodizes.
Rob Cowen comes across as the quintessential example of, in Kathleen Jamie’s wickedly apposite phrase, “a lone enraptured male”. She writes (of fellow nature writer Robert Macfarlane): “What’s that coming over the hill? A white, middle-class Englishman! A Lone Enraptured Male! … Here to boldly go, ‘discovering’, then quelling our harsh and lovely and sometimes difficult land with his civilised lyrical words.”
Part of the problem with Cowen’s book is that it is written in the first person present. There’s no register so prone to pompous self-regard – and there’s really only so much “I”-ing a girl can take. Here he is, having a moment, one Easter morning:
“I was at one with everything; my head swam with old voices, the deeper music of the stars and the dreams of ages. I was the swift hare running through Eden, hearing the universal harmony that comes in the union of soul, spirit and earth. The divine.”
Foxes don’t just appear in Cowen’s edge-land; they ‘manifest’, or are ‘birthed’ into meadows. The merest glimpse of a bushy tail tips him over the edge into paroxysms of hallucinatory psychodrivel: “he trots down to the frosted grass, eyes screwed tight, blinking in the last light. When he turns back, I follow him as far as I can. True to his mythical function, the fox is escorting me into this land.”
Poor old fox. He thought he was just out for an evening’s scavenge. Little did the unsuspecting creature imagine he would be ambushed by a Lone Enraptured Male and stuffed, struggling, into a poacher’s bag of cultural mythology. “In other societies, the fox is a shamanistic talisman,” explains Cowen, “the animal form of ‘psychopomp’. I feel a twinge of excitement, for I know this word.” I feel a twinge of irritation: of course he knows this word, he’s just used it. Just in case the reader’s not quite so au fait, he goes on to explain: “Psychopomps are guides on spiritual journeys or rites of passage, the beings responsible for escorting souls to the afterlife.”
Compare this to Charles Foster’s foray into foxland: “A fox can hear a squeaking vole 100 meters away and rooks winging across plough half a kilometer off. To lie ten metres from a speeding van must be apocalyptic: like living inside a tornado… I can get an intellectual, or at least a poetical, grip on acute sensitivity in another animal. But acute sensitivity and intense toleration: that’s hard.”
One book tells us a lot about foxes and quite a bit about being human, whereas the other tells us an awful lot about its author, and not very much else.
As we grapple to understand ‘nonhuman consciousnesses’ and our own humanity in this complex and ecologically imperiled world, new nature writing is in severe danger of falling prey to its own psychopomposity. Books like Foster’s are a welcome antidote, making us laugh and think often both at the same time.
First published in The Hindu Business Line, BLInk supplement, 23.10.16