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A Life Intertwined with Landscape

Stephanie Eve Boone reviews Nature Cure: A Story of Depression and Healing, by Richard Mabey

Nature Cure: A Story of Depression and Healing, by Richard Mabey.In graduate school, whenever I was assigned to read a book in which birds were either stars, symbols, or important supporting characters, I always approached it with the best intentions and then failed to finish more than half before class discussion. When I read books about birds, be they pigeons or sparrows, lapwings or kestrels, cranes or crows, one of two things happen: I drift off into my own thoughts, or I fall asleep.  I never finished Bernd Heinrich’s Ravens in Winter or Terry Tempest Williams’s Refuge.  I don’t have many mental images of birds handy, so whenever a writer starts waxing poetic about this or that particular aviary creature, I feel like one of the kids in Charlie Brown, listening to the (to them) indecipherable wah wah of an adult.  The conversation, quite simply, is above my head.

As it turns out, however, I am a more diligent book reviewer than I was a student, and so Richard Mabey’s Nature Cure: A Story of Depression and Healing (University of Virginia Press, 2007) becomes the first fowl-heavy book that I have completed—and the first that I enjoyed.  Let me tell you why:

For one thing, the subtitle is misleading and was, I suspect, suggested by the publisher as a marketing tool, given our culture’s fondness for depression-and-healing stories.  Yes, the narrator—a well-respected writer in his early sixties—has suffered a serious, crippling depression and the book covers a year of his recovery.  But all this is background; we do not get protracted scenes of Mabey staring in agony at the ceiling, or weeping into his pillow, or contemplating suicide and being rushed cinematically to the hospital.  And thank goodness for that—we’ve had enough of that on the display tables of our chain bookstores over the past half-dozen years.  So to subtitle this book A Story of Depression and Healing is like subtitling Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone: The Story of an Orphan who Lives with Dreadful Relatives and Has to Wear his Cousin’s Too-Large, Cast-Off Clothes.

As the book opens, our narrator is packing his car, preparing to move from his lifelong home in the English Chilterns (which, according to the region’s official tourist website, is northwest of London) to East Anglia (which the name suggests, and the map confirms, is England’s eastern peninsula).  A short move by American standards, but to Mabey, whose life is so intertwined with landscape, it is as jarring a move as, say, west Texas to Georgia.  The move is only partly voluntary.  During his nearly three years of depression, unable to work, he burned through most of his savings and is now forced to sell his house and take up work and lodging as a house- and cat-sitter.  He hopes that the move to a new landscape will force him to “grow up” (why a man who has managed to make a living as a writer feels like he still needs to mature is something I don’t entirely understand, though I might in thirty years), and complete his recovery.

This is important: Richard Mabey is a man who wakes up in the morning and looks out the window for birds.  He knows the names of the winged animals he sees—lapwing, swift, pheasant—and the ones he doesn’t see.  He knows where they go when they fly south for the winter, what route they take, what they eat on the way.  He is fascinated by ecosystems and woodlands, and reading his book I realized I was reading the work of one of those polymaths who were supposed to have disappeared around the time Queen Victoria died.  I had assumed that people like him never got depressed.  With all the studying they do, they couldn’t have time.

I started a list of all the historical events, significant places, and fellow authors Mabey discusses, with varying degree of length and always with significance (he is not a name-dropper, and does not allude without explanation—a move I particularly appreciate as a reader whose polymath skills are not on par with Mabey’s).  They include, but are not limited to, the Iraq War, Enclosure, the introduction of Konik horses to England, the Chauvet Cave Paintings, Annie Dillard, John Clare, Henry David Thoreau, and Gilbert White.  Revisiting four of the last-mentioned author’s essays, he discovers that they

aren’t scientific in any formal sense of the word.  They’re disorganized, anecdotal, affectionate…. Methodical investigation and presentation are not what he is about.  Some other purpose… was guiding White, however subconsciously.  And if you consider the circumstances and likely state of mind of the man who wrote them, the essays take on a new depth and resonance.  Here was a middle-aged bachelor, confined in a remote English village, longing for intellectual company and urbane enjoyment.  Writing of dwelling and migration and family responsibilities, he was contemplating not just the bird’s situation, but his own, and that of all social creatures. (171)

“Like this book!” I wrote excitedly in the margins, with my red mechanical pencil.  Like the 18th century writer White (who I, for one, will admit to having never heard of before, though I’m now inclined to look him up), Mabey is a middle-aged bachelor, confined in his own way by the aftermath of his illness and limitations of his recovery process, longing for the everyday enjoyment he once felt in his familiar surroundings.  He is concerned with birds, humans, and other social creatures—and not only their social relationships within their own species, but to other species, other genera, other phyla, other kingdoms.

Adam Bede, it is said, is such an accomplished book because more than simply telling a sensational story of infanticide and heartbreak, George Eliot draws a rich portrait of the landscape, both human and floral, of the fictional town of Hayslope.  In a similar vein, Nature Cure is not so much concerned with a man named Richard Mabey who uses his love for nature to recover from depression.  It is about the ecosystem he left, the ecosystem he moves to, the ecosystems he visits, and the global ecosystem of which each is a part.  It is a book-length essay in the best sense of the word—thoughtful and digressive, world-aware and informative without being pedantic. 

During the two weeks I spent reading Nature Cure, I finished three novels and a dozen or more essays.  All of them, in their way, were in my comfort zone.  Nature Cure exists outside my comfort zone; I expect that, as a reader, I am not alone in this.  But I read it because I had promised to write a review of it; and I am glad I did, but not because I needed to read it in order to write a review (one thing I learned in graduate school, though most people learn it in high school, is that with enough skill you can often write a perfectly passable evaluation of a book without having finished more than a third of it).  I’m glad I read it because it got me thinking about why this book exists outside my comfort zone.  It contains many four-dollar words like “palimpsest,” “eyrie,” “epiphyte,” and “carapace,” but I have three dictionaries.  It contains many references, sans description, to birds and plants I have never seen, or heard of.  But I have access to a high-speed internet connection, so Google and Wikipedia can magick up images of any of those mysterious flora and fauna within seconds.

Nature Cure exists outside my comfort zone because it is a slow read.  It is a page-lingerer more than a page-turner.  We forget that books are not all meant to be rushed through, so that we may put them on a shelf of finished books and add them to our list of accomplishments.  Some books—thrillers, for example—are written to be wolfed down like two-dollar hamburgers.  I love a good two-dollar hamburger.  But Mabey’s work is best enjoyed like a well-earned and expensive meal.  Take time to taste each unfamiliar, surprising flavor.  It’s been prepared with quiet mastery, just for you. 


Stephanie Eve Boone, Terrain.org's reviews editor, has written for such publications as American Book Review, The Buffalo News, The Cleveland Plain-Dealer, Sonora Review, and The Journal of Popular Culture. She blogs about running at Examiner.com and covers national political news for Politics Unlocked. A native of West Virginia, she earned an MFA in nonfiction from the University of Arizona in 2007. A writing teacher, she currently lives in Buffalo, New York, with her fiance, Dan.
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Nature Cure: A Story of Depression and Healing

By Richard Mabey

   University of Virginia Press
   ISBN 978-0-8139-2621-6


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