We were treated to a feast of conversation as we joined Richard Mabey in discussion with fellow author Patrick Barkham at the University of Suffolk. The event marked the fortieth anniversary year of Suffolk Book League and fifty years since the publication of Richard’s first book, Food For Free (1972). I first heard Richard speak in the nineteen eighties at a Common Ground conference and, forty books later, he has lost none of the exuberance and vitality that inspired us all back then. Their wide-ranging exchange covered writing, our relationship with nature and the future of the planet.
Richard, described by Patrick as the father of modern nature writing, is not encouraging us all to descend on the British countryside looking for food to forage. He makes the distinction between Britain and areas like the Languedoc in France, where there is an abundance of food for free. He urges us to respect nature and tune into the rules by which wild habitats work, not to try to control nature but to celebrate untended sites where invading species are surviving and thriving, making an argument for ‘benign neglect’ where nature can flourish without our interference.
Richard suggests that we could change the language in our approach to nature, decrying the careless use of language in our descriptions. He doesn’t take a spiritual view; his approach is materialist and his philosophical training has led him to value clear and specific language in relation to nature. In Turning the Boat for Home (2019), Richard used the term ‘neighbourliness’, a sense of sharing the planet with flora and fauna, not owning or controlling but living alongside other species and allowing natural processes to take their course.
Richard Mabey continues to challenge accepted ways of thinking. He wants us to change our concept of what nature means, suggesting that when we talk of being in nature we are being selective. He suggests we need to be more tolerant of invading species which have the ability to survive and thrive, given challenges of climate change. He acknowledges the anxiety children are currently feeling but suggests the answer is not to despair but to get involved. The evening ended on a positive note with both authors urging us to engage locally. Patrick, who is president of Norfolk Wildlife Trust, emphasised the importance of getting involved with our local environment and engaging with nature wherever we live.