One night, feeling an urge to escape the sickening smell of fresh paint and beckoning boxes waiting to be unpacked, Cowen wanders out of his new home in Harrogate, North Yorkshire. On the edge of town, he discovers a half-forgotten forest and fallow field hemmed in between housing and countryside, a place to which he feels a connection from the first instant. He begins to explore each part of this unkempt space, examining each patch of ground, interrogating every inhabitant. Inspired by the ensuing discoveries, he consigns his observations, visions and emotions to the page. The resulting book could have turned into a boring botany lesson, a dry record of changing seasons and animal habits. Yet Cowen’s narrative transcends all this. His writing is often surprising in form, and the resulting hybrid of memoir, novel and natural history is a highly engaging take on nature writing.
The most interesting aspect of Common Ground is how animals are treated as characters in their own right. While Cowen does not pretend to know what really goes on in the mind of a fox, mayfly or migrating swift, he is enlightened enough to imagine, and their consciousness is as lively and fascinating as that of the spliff-smoking teens, dog-walkers and illuminated rough-sleepers he encounters in the edge-land. One time, a deer leaps over him as he lies hidden in the grass, and the momentary rush of adrenaline suddenly reminds him of a primitive connection. His visceral account of the encounter is genuinely gripping, seamlessly transitioning to a vision of a hunt from the stag’s perspective. These empathic exercises are for me the high points of the book. They are the key to its appeal for renewed connection with our environment, allowing Cowen to avoid an overly didactic tone. They infuse the book’s coverage of wide-ranging environmental concerns – most notably the excessive commoditisation of nature and privatisation of land, and our apathy in the face of climate change – with greater passion. The ambition of this approach makes his love of nature and anger at its destruction self-explanatory.
‘Common Ground’ is also a very personal book, often emotionally charged. When he is not plunging into the consciousness of wild beings, Cowen rummages through his own mind. He spends so much time in the edge-land that it begins to colour his every thought. It is unpredictable, stimulating. It offers him new perspective on his life at home, his wife’s pregancy, the interrogations that come with it. Some of his conclusions about “love” and the “universe” can sound a little grandiose, but they are clearly the product of an earnest, sensitive mood. Such openess is to be valued and admired. In fact, I only thought this when picking the book back up after a pause of some days. I felt most in tune with his words when I really immersed myself in them, reading several chapters in one go.
It’s easy to be absorbed by Cowen’s prose, as it is marked by a knack for alliteration and is profusely laden with often inventive metaphors: “A grey wagtail waits and watches on a semi-submerged stone. Breast a bright cadmium yellow, body tapering into the fine point of its long folded wings and tail, it looks like a horsehair brush halfway through a van Gogh sun”. At times this can feel excessive, when he finds himself unable to settle on a single image and ends up with more than I can count: “a thunderclap of riotous applause greets us as hundreds of little hedge birds burst from their roosts in a cloud flurry, like flies from a cowpat. They bounce away along the hawthorn and blackthorn, barely touching it, the way a finger tests a red-hot surface”. Still, I hesitate to call it overworked, as it means the text is never dry, often surprising with an unexpected image.
In the end, Common Ground is a welcome reminder that nature is often much closer and accessible than we expect. Nature isn’t just to be found in the ‘wild’. You don’t need to change your name to Supertramp, burn all your money and traipse across a continent to reconnect with it. In this unmanaged corner of an otherwise planned-out urban landscape, signs of humanity are never far. We find discarded cigarette stubs, tractor tires and cold campfires. Dogs bark from rows of semis, engines rev in the distance. Electric lines scar the sky. Life can be surprisingly resilient to our best efforts to control and sanitise our surroundings. It flourishes right there on the edge of town. Experiencing this may be easier for Cowen than for those of us living in large cities with little time on our hands. Still the suggestion stands: walk out, and you may be surprised.
Cowen, R. (2015) Common Ground: Encounters with Nature at the Edges of Life, University of Chicago Press (Illustrated Edition), ISBN 978-0226424262
Piece originally published on deciduous.in (now inactive) on October 13th, 2015.