UK's favourite nature book: Finding common ground with Rob Cowen
“I'm incredibly happy,” says Rob Cowen over a crackling mobile line.
And it's not just the fact that he’s speaking from out in the sunny, snow clad Yorkshire landscape he loves so much that has cheered the award-winning journalist and author. His book, Common Ground, was voted the third best-loved piece of nature writing in the UK in an online poll organised by the Arts and Humanities Research Council.
“It's very heartening to see what is a very genre-crossing book so warmly received,” he says.
Common Ground is the story of the author's move to the Yorkshire Wolds and his discovery of a remarkable piece of landscape on the edge of a town. “An imperceptible force drew me there,” he says. And once there, Cowen finds himself lost in the natural world and his memoir becomes a quest to evoke and experience its stories.
“Since it came out I've had letters and emails from people every day saying that it means a lot to them,” he says. “It seems to be one of those books that everyone who reads it and likes it gives a copy to someone else, and that makes me very happy.
“People do say that it has made them look differently at the spaces around them – and that's very important, because we don't all have the time and resources to go off trekking through the mountains.”
His writing strikes a bold, experimental tone and in Common Ground Cowen imagines himself into the lives of a variety of both human and animal protagonists.
“It was written in the fire,” he says of the book. “It took a lot to do and I didn't make it easy for myself. It is really 12 short stories that are together part of a richer fabric. I wanted to evoke a place over time and create a kind of prism through which we can look at ourselves and our relationship with nature and history.”
In particular, Cowen feels that weaving fiction into his memoir was vital to help readers imagine their way into the experience of others, particularly birds and animals.
“Human beings are great at empathy,” he says. “Non-fiction will never move people like a story, and nothing will make people give a shit more than helping them feel their way into another creature's experience.
“Tarka the Otter affected me very deeply – I read every page with wonder and horror. But it not only moved me, it taught me about otters and how they behave. To dismiss all this as silly anthropomorphism is just wrong.
“Everything is anthropomorphised when you think about it. Everything passes through, and is filtered by, our brains.”
Crucially, the landscape within which Cowen explores the relationship between humanity and nature is intimate, local. He believes that “every single inch” of Britain has a depth and an “eerie quality” that has the power to tell us something about where we are coming from and where we are going. His common ground is not somewhere grand and conventionally wild. But a tangled green margin hugging onto the scruffy fringe of an urban sprawl. The sort of place we all have access to and can all relate to.
“I didn't discover this place by putting the right gear on and heading out into the wilderness, I did it by going to the edge of a housing estate on New Year's Eve,” he says.
“But the stories were all there and it's an extraordinary place. There are hares, half a mile from the edge of town. But it's not just the wildlife. I also think that these liminal, forgotten, places-between-places have a depth that is particularly relevant at the moment. We live in liminal times and that is reflected in the way we think about nature.”
“Nature is bigger and more important than our crazy human lives. If you can just push through the membrane and experience that, then it can make living in the human world easier.”
Of course we can't live in that wildness forever. But what Common Ground seems to be about is bringing that sense of nature into the day-to-day. Its message seems to be that, if you learn to see, things will be revealed to you.
“It's about listening to – and heeding – the world around us and stepping out of the routine of work, TV, bed, rinse and repeat, day in and day out,” says Cowen.
But in a dark twist of fate the landscape where Cowen was able to do just that is now threatened by the construction of a new relief road – something he describes as “painful and bitterly ironic” – even as he acknowledges that ultimately it will be nature that sweeps us all aside.
“The natural world doesn't care about us,” he says. “And despite all our cleaver tricks, and no matter how many Trump Towers we build out of gold, there will come a day when all of this is re greened, or a desert, and nature will just carry on without us.
“Whatever is happening, just look out of the window. The world turns and, in the end, our lives really don't matter that much.”