Richard Mabey’s ‘Nature Cure’

Towards the beginning of his 2005 book Nature Cure, nature writer Richard Mabey likened his personal experience of depression to becoming an ‘incomprehensible creature adrift in some insubstantial medium, out of kilter with the rest of creation’. Mabey figures personal lostness as alienation from nature; before suggesting that such lostness is simply a feature of a social, collective depression: ‘maybe that is the way our whole species is moving’ (4). Our general alienation from nature is seen to involve a form of dematerialization, a spectral or virtual drift which Mabey puts down to our increasing reliance on technology and intellectualization. ‘We’re becoming unearthly, freed, we like to think, from the physical imperatives of nature by technology, and exiled from its sensuality and immediacy by our self-awareness.’ (13) In some lines with which many writers, early/no career academics and other members of knowledge class precariats will readily identify, Mabey sees that, in terms of his writer’s lifestyle, heightened intellectualization plus drift equated to the excessive specialization and rootlessness which together brought on his nervous collapse:

I was a scrap of nomadic tissue, a kind of mobile epiphyte – an organism without its own roots – living on the land rather than in it, and letting others bother about my infrastructure. And like an epiphyte I was lost when my substrate started to collapse. I was, quite simply, too specialized, and didn’t have the flexibility and confidence to cope with changes in my niche. (10)

Mabey’s experience testified to what we could call the dialectic of success within overfocussed careers: precisely ‘at the most unexpected time’, when he should have been ‘awash with the sense of well-being that comes from high status and achievement’ (50), he tipped into the state Oliver Sacks terms ‘vegetative retreat’ – as Mabey describes it, ‘safe harbourage, a period when inward, protective processes take precedence over all that adrenalin-pumping’ (55). He ventures a comparison with the poet John Clare’s experience:

During his asylum years Clare was never in the remotest sense ‘vegetative’ in his depression. But he did go progressively into retreat, and the vivid, sensual, connected verse of his middle years was replaced by more introspective, abstract, almost metaphysical musings. (57)

Mental illness is again identified by Mabey with developing intellectualization, and his focus here on Clare’s shift towards a more philosophical verse could be said to echo his earlier emphasis on our elevation of ‘our particular brand of consciousness’ over nature. ‘Our role on the planet is compromised […] by […] the belief that our particular brand of consciousness makes us uniquely privileged as a species, entitled to evaluate and manage the lives of all the others on our own terms’ (13). In this statement Mabey is already implicitly asking what a different, more natural form of consciousness might represent. He is also anticipating his later stress on meta-mind or some type of collective intelligence:

[…] mind is a much broader entity than consciousness, and not necessarily confined in individual packages. It’s a function of all life, the learned-from, responsive record that experience makes in living tissue. It can be cultural, co-operative, perhaps even communal. And maybe in keeping with our new understanding of the unity of physical life, we could try viewing mind not as possessed by individuals, but shared between them, as a kind of field. (174)

(Mabey would doubtless want to remind techno-evangelists of virtual collective intelligence that technology now is merely reproducing nature’s traditional meta-personal qualities).

Mabey notes etymological confirmation of the status of mind as a function of the body:

[…] ‘animal’ itself springs from the ancient Sanskrit root anila, meaning ‘wind’, via the Latin animalis, ‘anything alive’, splitting off animus on the way as, first, ‘mind’ and then ‘mental impulse, disposition, passion’ – a reminder of the time that mind and nature were not thought of as contrary entities. (20)

From the perspective of someone interested in Continental philosophy it seems a little unfortunate, however, that Nature Cure does not recognize Schelling’s important focus on the interweaving of mind and nature, and on the status of mind as a function of the body; Mabey maintains that ‘the philosphical [sic] tradition that stretched from Moses to Newton and beyond took it for granted that humankind was the supreme earthly order, and that the rest of creation had been put there for our benefit’. Nor is Schelling referenced when Mabey goes on to admit that, in ‘the nineteenth and twentieth centuries’, a ‘fascination with the mechanics of nature led, inevitably, to a realization of its interconnectedness and vulnerability – and that its intricate networks included us, whether we liked it or not’ (107).

In fact Mabey is critical of approaches to nature grounded primarily in natural science: he bemoans the absence of ‘personal narratives’ of our own experiences of nature from contemporary nature writing, ‘as if the experience of nature were something separate from real life, a diversion, a hobby; or perhaps only to be evaluated through the dispassionate and separating prism of science’ (22). He even echoes the analysis of our domination of nature put forward by Theodor Adorno and Max Horkheimer in their Dialectic of Enlightenment, when he pinpoints Francis Bacon as ‘the writer who most clearly signposted the transition between an organic view of nature and the mechanistic and reductionist model of the modern world’. ‘Nature, he [Bacon] wrote, must be “bound into service”, be moulded by science.’ (106) Mabey is preoccupied by the need to reassert the value of imaginative approaches to the natural world over scientific ones. ‘Despite our science and our humanism, our whole culture is infused with myths and symbols of landscape and nature’ (19), he notes at one point. Mainstream environmentalism is criticized for its custodial, managerial approach – man as nature’s caretaker or steward – which accords us ‘essentially a mundane, utilitarian role, leaving in the air all our ancient and complex psychological ties with nature’ (108). Thus it is not simply that Mabey feels that ‘language and imagination […] are our most powerful and natural tools for re-engaging’ (23) with nature. He also asserts ‘our imaginative affinities with the natural world’ to be ‘a crucial ecological bond, as essential to us as our material needs for air and water and photosynthesizing plants’ (37).

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Hence Mabey argues that, rather than being ‘the opposite or contrary of nature’, culture represents ‘the interface between us and the non-human world, our species’ semi-permeable membrane’. Clare is held up as ‘one of the few writers to have found that shared field’ straddling nature and culture, and to have ‘created a language that joined rather than separated’ (23) the two. Despite the ‘patient vigils’ and ‘diligent watchfulness’ supplied by the latest camera technology for TV nature documentaries, the ‘dispassionate objectivity’ of such scientific approaches has ruled out ‘the poet’s glimpse of a shared world, and […] his sense of cherishing rather than caretaking’ (110).

‘Isn’t a life of words the very antithesis of a life of nature?’ (34) Mabey responds to this worry by proposing that we see our very skills as ‘talkers and dreamers’ as in fact representing ‘our way back, rather than the cause of our exile’ (37). Writing proved to be Mabey’s own way back from paralyzing depression to mental stability – ‘[l]earning to write again was what finally made me better’ (23) – precisely because he started writing again about nature : ‘it was regaining that imaginative relationship with the world beyond that was my “nature cure”‘ (64). Language and imagination, he maintains, can awaken our sense of a nature/culture symbiosis because they allow us to articulate our own instability alongside nature’s: ‘they’re also the gateway to understanding our kindredness to the rest of creation, to fitting our oddness into the scheme of things, […] to add our particular “singing” to that of the rest of the natural world’ (37). It is also a case of fitting nature’s unpredictability and inventiveness into us; of accepting and internalizing its wildness. Rather than involving a submission to a rejuvenating nature, some healthy condition-out-there, Mabey’s healing process, so he writes, involved ‘a sense of being taken not out of myself but back in, of nature entering me, firing up the wild bits of my imagination’ (224).

Text

Richard Mabey, Nature Cure (London: Vintage, 2015 (first publ. 2005))