Non-Fiction Page Turners
Rather like London buses, you wait for ages, then three books by your favourite writers come along all at the same time. New books by George Monbiot, Jay Griffiths, and Michael Pollan hit my desk almost simultaneously last month, creating a veritable three-course meal of essential and mind-expanding thinking for the summer of 2013. The experience of reading previous works by these authors has been like being drawn in by an adventure book when I was a child – now, as then, I have been completely unable to put them down.
Starting with ‘Feral’ by George Monbiot, this is a book about ‘rewilding’ which is to say the process of allowing selected parts of the British landscape to return to their natural state. Readers of these pages are very likely to be familiar with Monbiot’s column in the Guardian, and may also have read his books ‘Heat’ (about stopping the planet from burning) or ‘Captive State’ (about the corporate takeover of Britain). ‘Feral’ finds the writer at a kind of middle-aged existential crossroads, yearning for something beyond the comforts of civilisation. The landscape of Wales provides a backdrop throughout, and it is the mountains of Snowdonia and the Cambrians which make the strongest case for change. The author describes how, having moved to Wales, his initial sense of freedom gives way to despair when he realises that he is not walking around a nature reserve, but around a ‘desert’, devoid of life. The open, treeless slopes that we all accept as ‘natural’ are nothing of the sort, rather the product of centuries of clearing and ‘sheep-wrecking’. Left to its own devices, nature will restore a leafy forest, teeming with life. To my forest garden-attuned ears this is exciting enough, however the next stage of the exercise is to restore a host of wild animals like beaver, moose and even wolves. The latest scientific evidence suggests that beavers will ‘manage’ rivers so that water travels more slowly down them and reduces flood risk; wolves will ‘manage’ (!) deer populations so that culling becomes unnecessary, and so it goes on. Nature spent millions of years developing these interconnected systems: all we need to do is to point her in the right direction and let her take over again. The seas, too, have been turned into ‘deserts’ by industrial fishing, and a strong case is made for marine reserves.
This is a brilliant book, one of those that makes you look differently at the world and our place in it. It makes a case for a positive environmentalism, one which brings wonder back into our lives.
Jay Griffith’s ‘Kith’ is about childhood, specifically the differences between the ways childhood is experienced around the world. The book addresses a central riddle, namely why it is that so many children in Euro-American cultures are unhappy, while children in traditional cultures seem happier.
This book is in many ways a companion-piece to her previous work, ‘Wild’, indeed it stems from the same period of travel and research. She begins with the poet John Clare, the ‘patron saint of childhood’ whose idyllic childhood was brutally fenced off by the Acts of Enclosure. Griffiths’ thesis is that this was the first act in a gradual ‘enclosure’ of the minds of children, who are now imprisoned in a consumerist cornucopia, but denied time to roam and explore the world through play – in nature. This idea is developed in a series of widening gyres, encompassing history, philosophy, literature and language to create a truly universal plea for a more authentic life, starting with childhood. Griffiths has a dazzling way with language and this is a rich feast of a book. It makes for an inspiring, if somewhat uncomfortable read to those of us with children. I did feel she repeated herself a little here and there, but when the writing is this good, that is of minor concern. I urge you to seek out her other books – Pip Pip, which will make you look differently at time, and ‘Wild’ which will restore your spirit.
Finally, onto ‘Cooked’ by Michael Pollan. Pollan an American journalist whose works include ‘The Botany of Desire’ and ‘The Omnivore’s Dilemma’. The latter forms the basis of the movie ‘Food Inc’, which my Transition group (and I’m sure many others) has shown. Both book and movie address the industrialisation of food, and the knock-on effects on human health. ‘Cooked’ squares up to a curious paradox, namely that while people are spending less time every year preparing food, they are watching ever more shows where celebrity chefs do it for us. The book explores how taking control of what we cook increases self-reliance and freedom. In Transition terms, it is re-skilling writ large.
Indeed all three of these new works seem to me to address core tenets of Transition. Perhaps we could think of them as a kind of ‘advanced level’ Transition – each a manifesto for a new lived relationship with the planet, be that with nature, with the food we eat, or with our children. I will return to my local group after our summer recess enriched, inspired and reinvigorated by these three books.