A perfect balance on the tightrope between rational science and poetic sensibilities
Richard Mabey is a naturalist whose analytical scientific training is married with a personality which is of a strong feeling, imaginative tone, which causes his relationship with the natural world to be strongly congruent with the sense of dynamic mystery in nature which infuses the poetry of the Romantics and Metaphysicals.
Or, as Mabey himself puts it, in a more sensuous, impassioned and precise manner:
When I’m occasionally called a ‘Romantic naturalist’ I wonder whether it’s an accusation as much as a description : the meticulous observations of the natural scientist corrupted by my overheated imagination: objectivity compromised by my Romantic insistence on making feelings part of the equation……………….nature isn’t a machine to be dispassionately dissected, but a community of which we, the observers, are inextricably part. And that our feelings about that community are a perfectly proper subject for reflection, because they shape our relationship with it”
For me Mabey’s writings on the natural world are as perfect as they can get.
Analytical observation and objective research reins in the tendency to become febrile with ineffable meaning, and the sense of the numinous ever present prevents a dissection which kills the essence it is trying to understand.
In this short and rich book, he examines the natural world through the five senses and that ‘sixth sense’ which he calls a sense of location or place, which may be linked to a felt sense of the earth’s magnetic field.
Each chapter, with its marriage of fact and, not fancy, but feeling about fact presents many riches for thoughtful visioning.
However it was the chapter on the sense of hearing, which focused on birdsong, analysing something deep and wonderful about music, its effect on soul and sense, which I found the most potent and rich of all the potent and rich chapters.
And, perhaps the most delicious nugget of all was not even an observation from Mabey himself, but a quoting of Richard Dawkins, who makes a stunning, wonderful bridge of science and art in his analysis and explanation of the links between Keats’ Ode to a Nightingale, and the possible effect of particular sequences of sound waves upon the brain – whether the brain of a human listener or a female nightingale :
“Taking his cue from the phrase ….
‘and a drowsy numbness pains/ My sense as though of hemlock I had drunk’
he suggests that the idea of a nightingale song working like a drug isn’t entirely far-fetched………..Dawkins argues : ……‘The song is not informing the female but manipulating her. It is not so much changing what the female knows but directly changing the physiological state of her brain. It is acting like a drug’
This short book is definitely one for the re-read and re-read again and again shelf, rich in anecdote, meaning and juicy factual nugget!
There are beautiful woodcut style black and white illustrations to accompany the text, which are as delightful and to-be-savoured as the writing itself