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).


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).


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

Nature in Simon Jarvis’s ‘Jerusalem Deleted’

One notable element of the critique of present-day life held within Simon Jarvis’s most recent long philosophical poem, this year’s Jerusalem Deleted, is its commentary on our ongoing global processes of technicization. Jarvis worries at technology’s rapidly developing encroachments on our spiritual humanity – ‘so that no subtlety might tell apart/ the soul from silicon’ (16) – but he also finds a feature of our diminishing humanity to be its conversion of technology itself into a false nature, or a literalization of the Marxist concept of second nature: the digital data ‘cloud’. Here is how stanza 144 closes:

[…] that enumerating nihilation

which would suck England’s binaries as cinders


into the sand bank, to the pixel cloud,

its unlocatable undying shroud! (35)

In reaction to today’s presentation of technology as false nature, and our concomitant ‘total prospect of life’s set demise’, Jerusalem Deleted goes on to propose nature – and indeed an equivalently radicalized, totalized, ‘stark’ nature – as a refuge from technocratic society.

[…] I must

find Khoda, if he were alive: his tents

would be in some stark desert where the dust

refused the network by one too intense


heat, cold or damp; where rolling stock will rust

or wireless signals baffle at the blank,

cash not pass current at the labour bank. (68)

Of course Khoda’s speculated desert home itself reinforces the poem’s sense that we are now, with Sebald, ‘after Nature’ (89). The poem’s English landscape, haunted as it is by ‘avid drones’, is really technicized anti-nature.

Each single feature of the suffering earth

respired with malice, since there was no nature

not intermingled with the toys of dearth

interinsinuated in each feature


and calculating how each little birth

might bring some profit to the counter-creature

whose rage-surveillances would coldly sleep

inside each secret I might think to keep (44-45)

The next lines state how ‘yet rain still felt like rain’ and wonder if plant-life might in fact ‘have the temerity still to exist’, but one hundred pages further on, Jarvis reinforces the suggestion that it is precisely technology’s interinsinuation or pixellation of nature with harm – even if that nature still breathes – which points to the total quality of the threat posed by technocracy.

The whole East Midlands, this large wilderness

of BACKBONE sentinels and parcelled lots,


is network-ready, and the signals bless

its unloved shoulders with the coldest dots

falling just anywhere upon its curves,

deeply indifferent to the land’s slow swerves. (151)

The indifference or absence of affect of the digital invasion (or rape) of the East Midlands exemplifies the way in which this poetic environment is constituted by lack, dearth: here the landscape is punctured by cold pixels just as the narcoleptic consciousness of the narrator is shaped throughout the poem by naps and blackouts. Sensual deficiency, experienced by ‘unloved’ nature, transfers to the narrator in his alienation from nature. He blames his distance from natural sensuality on a seduction by philosophico-cultural practices, Versuche which can only self-disable in their own alienation from their natural origins.

By which cruel logic might I once forget


the smell, the tremor, of the breathing earth?

What subtle spectre, loved as soon as met,

bound me in service to persisting dearth?

Truth’s own researches, whose endeavours yet

reseal the passageways of words’ first birth? (72)

Later in the text, the narrator returns to his fear that an alienated form of cultural production dominates and violates nature’s sensual charge.

Have I so dined upon the fatal tree


that I must never feel again the touch

of one light breath upon my face, or see

one lit field rained on, but I write it such

that every little part of it be me

killed by a letter which I still too much


print even on the very face of nature,

stamp on the eyelid of each living creature? (188)


The awareness that culture can be grounded in domination of nature, has already brought the narrator to seek to avoid appearing to engage in the cultural work of trawling ‘grains of created sense’ from out of pained natural substance, or ‘suffering chaff’; sacralized language (‘divinest truth’) is seen to be itself a material epiphenomenon – a sort of discarded husk – of honed literary style.

It is just that I would not seem to sift

grains of created sense from unbegotten


or suffering chaff, the flesh-encyphered gift

divinest truth knows as its ownmost rotten

corpse of style’s contours, which descend to hell

in order to find out what writing well

lives off and sucks its tunes from. (74)

Elsewhere ‘style’s contours’ are identified as the sort of ‘superficial charm’ which is to be avoided along with a form of writing which violates the salvific content of natural sounds – their immediate revelation of ‘life, joy and sentience’.

Must I not any longer have a word

which might relinquish superficial charm

or name inviolately one sound heard


sent by the verbless breeze across the farm

from whose weak bleat were instantly inferred

life, joy and sentience, before mistrust

could lay these creatures of the air in dust? (188)

Jarvis is wary of reducing nature to a figure of illusory freedom, such as when the idea of natural ‘freedom’ is turned to bolster a false escape from the regime of the capitalist work ethic.

[…] from the beeches dark

branches shade arrows, superseded toasts

to abstract freedom, a vacation lark

wandered through marked paths in a seeming Freiheit


dying each instant to receding Freizeit. (225)

Yet nonetheless the narrator fantasizes nature as a refuge holding transcendental content, such as the dance of the lamb.

I dreamt the sharp owl was my kindest neighbour

or beech trees knew an aperture where grace

outlined them quickest, & the lamb call tabor

to let its skipping reconvoke a place

touched with a grain or supernatural trace (156)

Jerusalem Deleted  indeed expresses faith in ‘unforced intimations’ of a ‘core of unsummarizably intense/ epiphany, some promise of release’ (74), and in the potential of revelation: ‘Struck down with blessings by the total gift/ I just subsist in its illumination.’ (201) This sort of recognition of immediate salvific moments in Jarvis’s poetry may surprise – Jarvis having argued Hegelianly, in a 1991 article, that J.H. Prynne’s poetic resists the presentation of phenomenological immediacy because such a presentation would be undialectical: ‘once examined, apparent immediacy necessarily reveals its own mediatedness’. However, in his Schelling and Modern European Philosophy, after quoting Hegel’s Science of Logic on ‘being which has been restored, but as the infinite mediation and negativity of being in itself’, so as to underline the ‘crucial factor’ for Hegel that ‘the apparently immediate is actually mediated, “reflected in itself”‘, Andrew Bowie goes on to note the work of other philosophers whose questionings of Hegel can be said to anticipate Jarvis’s approach to immediacy now in Jerusalem Deleted :

Dieter Henrich shows the problem with this conception [Hegel’s] in a seminal essay on ‘Hegel’s Logic of Reflection’ […]. Henrich thinks that the problem can be overcome in Hegelian terms; Manfred Frank shows how this problem had already been identified by Schelling, and how a Hegelian solution to it is impossible […]. (Bowie: 168)

The Hegel-Schelling debate relates to Jarvis’s concern in the philosophical verse of Jerusalem Deleted with a ‘total gift’ and the ‘unsummarizably intense’, or with the transcendentally immediate (or immediately transcendental), because – as Bowie maintains – the ‘real question’ at issue between Schelling and Hegel ‘in the years following 1801’, is ‘how this Absolute can be presented in philosophy’. Indeed for Bowie ‘the future of modern philosophy lies in the implications of this conflict’. (84) ‘The issue between Schelling and Hegel’, Bowie noted, will centre on ‘whether the Absolute can, as Hegel thinks, be grasped by the process of reflection, thus requiring no presupposition external to reflection’; already in his System of Transcendental Idealism of 1800 Schelling had argued against Hegel with his view that – as Bowie puts it – ‘the role of the work of art was precisely to give access to the ground [emph. mine] of reflection’, which ground ‘must be presupposed, but cannot appear in reflection’ (56). Schelling’s foregrounding of a concern with the ground of reflection – with art or nature – entails, or is instinct with the denial of the need to follow the logic of reflection and reveal mediatedness which Bowie refers to thus:

Schelling’s Absolute, as presented in his identity philosophy, has come to be associated with ‘immediacy’, the failure to carry out the ‘exertion of the concept’, the articulation of the moments of the process of the Absolute, which is regarded as Hegel’s great achievement, begun in the Phenomenology and best exemplified in the Logic and the Encyclopaedia. (55)

The philosophical landscape of Jerusalem Deleted shares with Schelling’s thinking the view that nature offers an immediately presupposed Absolute, as when it lets the skipping of the lamb ‘reconvoke a place/ touched with a grain or supernatural trace’ (Jarvis: 156). Jarvis’s narrator is also familiar with ‘the very grammar of the way I flee/ the labour of the concept’ (197). Rather than following the logic of reflection towards the goal of an Absolute which is judged to be realizable in philosophy, here the poem’s narrator, with Schelling, questions what Bowie calls ‘the last great attempt at positive metaphysics: that of Hegel’ (Bowie: 140). The narrator instead directs the thinking of the poem towards Schelling’s ‘basic move against Idealism’ (Bowie) in which, through its foregrounding of a concern with the ground of reflection, ‘the primacy of the subject is undermined by the realization of the dependence of its thinking on what is itself not the result of thinking’ (133). His focus on nature or pre-reflexive being thus led Schelling to ‘a structure that has again become familiar in recent European philosophy, the structure of the inherent lack in the subject, whose very nature is determined by this lack’. (140)

We have noted already the importance of the subject’s lack within Jerusalem Deleted, but to try to understand both nature and inherent lack in Jarvis’s poem a little more, it is helpful to draw on how Bowie notes ‘the proximity of pre-reflexive being to Lacan’s Real’. Quoting the other Bowie (Malcolm) on how the Real is ‘the irremediable and intractable “outside” of language; the indefinitely receding goal towards which the signifying chain tends’, Bowie argues that this goal is akin to pre-reflexive being or nature, ‘the goal of what Schelling terms “negative philosophy”‘, insofar as ‘the Real is actually always already lost as that from which the subject emerges’ (140). This alliance of nature, pre-reflexive being and the always already lost with the Lacanian Real, re-emerges within stanza 1145 of Jarvis’s poem, where the Real is found in ‘the wheel/ of needs & wants’. Unfreedom, pain and social ‘misery’ are held to be the precise locations of this structure of lack:

False personations which withhold their pardon

vanish like History : a true help sought

acquires from open misery this Real

perennially turning in the wheel

of needs & wants whose futures are the names


of work’s hot logic, play’s repeated games. (Jarvis: 202)

These lines observe that the subject lacks the Real and only works and plays, self-constitutes, because in its unfreedom it ‘needs & wants’ the Real. Yet whilst for (Malcolm Bowie’s) Lacan the Real remains only an ‘indefinitely receding goal’, for Jarvis ‘a true help sought/ acquires from open misery this Real’. By contrast, hyper-singularized selves who can only blame social unfreedom whilst judging it alien to their own realms of personal freedom – perhaps Jarvis is thinking here of the infantile ‘progressive’ perfectibilism of much Left politics – are seen to remain frozen in their illusory freedoms: ‘False personations which withhold their pardon/ vanish like History’. The immediately preceding stanzas, with their reference to the black hole-like ‘centripetal force/ perfecting singularity’, and reminders that ‘Life is that secret known to everyone’ and ‘lips [must] meet live lips before the gone hearts harden’ (201), prepare us for this sense that that (curative ‘secret’) which we lack, ‘this Real’, can be accessed through the ‘true’ seeking carried out by a nonjudgmental self engaged in a shared recognition of pain – in ‘open misery’.

[…] I affirm salvation

not as the freedom tree but when my neighbour

remembers with me the unfree one here

where the lost apple blossoms into pain. (69)


Stanzas 47-48 of Jerusalem Deleted explicitly define this salvific project of a shared recognition of suffering in terms of a poetic involving the negative expression of hope:

The true solution felt as though it hung

the longest little infinite away

from where it might as readily be sung


as typed or spoken, and the massive grey

harbour those timbres, hues and serifs which

should make this open misery a rich

path of negations to a common joy. (19)

The narrator’s programme of working through the pain entailed by an unfree society – ‘Again I dedicate myself to pain’ (152) – seems to bring him to identify with a tradition of suffering poets: in stanza 450 the remark ‘I had to get to Harlow’ and the reference to ‘a Hertfordshire no thought might fathom’ (86) seems to invoke John Clare’s ‘Journey Out of Essex’. There is certainly a faith in a salvific obscure reception of the poetry of the suffering:

[…] press on through hell as though

there were some saving element within it,

a small band in the shaw, a troop hid low,


a strong secreted or unknown platoon

reading the faint scripts underneath the moon. (14-15)

It seems unlikely that this ‘saving element’, which would be prepared to receive a redemptive poetic recognizing unfreedom, would be located by this poem’s narrator in Cambridge: he classes Khertvis (the town that represents Cambridge in the poem, I believe) amongst ‘those dead sees gone/ some twenty years since into blank oblivion’ (19). Nor would the narrator see Cambridge producing such a poetic. Near the poem’s close, the sort of hyper-cultured avant-garde poetry that is typically associated with ‘Cambridge School’ production is suddenly inveighed against, by an italicized voice irrupting into the narrator’s monologue, as ‘”well-fed and agonized and stranded high,/ “a papier-mâché grimace in the sky!” ‘ (241) The implication is that the élite sort of writing represents not ‘open misery’ but instead the closed-off misery of false personations. The narrator welcomes this rebellion of unfunded lyric against the salaried poetic élite, going on to define it in terms of the very redemptive form that the entire poem’s title has refused. ‘JERUSALEM: inauditible loop/ sung for no supper!’ (242) A new poetic with the salvific ambitions of Blake’s Jerusalem is sensed to involve the construction of an indefinitely receding goal à la the Lacanian Real, or a work of Schellingian negative philosophy.

Jarvis’s poem ends with the appearance of a female poet whose discourse spins, like the Real, in ‘the wheel/ of needs & wants’. If for (Malcolm Bowie’s) Lacan the Real remains only an ‘indefinitely receding goal’, this poet’s natural discourse represents a poetic that organically re-articulates the pain of ‘the lost apple’. It is a redemptive poetic enacting the sort of sensitive immanent critique of social unfreedom which can help pain regenerate itself from within.

[…] I can hear her talk

still ineradicably spin and shed

leaf upon leaf of melody all whose


notes are those names and concepts I have struck

out from this island’s face, as though her luck

were, with her song, to touch each wound, so soft

as it, transfigured in its pain, should cross

into its true shape. […] (243)

Non-linked texts

Andrew Bowie, Schelling and Modern European Philosophy: An Introduction (London: Routledge, 1993)

Simon Jarvis, Jerusalem Deleted (London: Enitharmon Press, 2015)