Friday, 30 October 2020

A Claxton Diary, by Mark Cocker

 If there's one thing that the lockdown reminded many of us, it's that nature is immensely important to us. For reasons that should be obvious, but also because a close relationship with nature soothes us, calms us - heals us.

I'm not suggesting you should use this book as a substitute for a walk in the woods or a spell in the garden - but it can reinforce the real thing by providing you with a regular, beautifully crafted little dose of the natural world by a writer who has observed it closely and intently for many years. To quote the book cover:

"For seventeen years as part of his daily routine the author and naturalist Mark Cocker has taken a two-mile walk to the river from his cottage on the edge of the Norfolk Broads National Park. Over the course of those 10,000 daily paces he has learnt the art of patience to observe a butterfly, bird, flower, bee deer, otter or fly and to take pleasure in all the other inhabitants of his parish no matter how seemingly insignificant."

This book contains a collection of these observations - mostly but not exclusively from Norfolk - in the form of a diary which takes us through a year's seasons. The author observes meticulously, and describes with exactitude - but he also has a huge amount of background knowledge with which to contextualise his observations.

A particular favourite of mine is the entry for 18th September 2014, and it will serve as an example. It's about swallows. He begins with a single swallow, perched on a wire. "It looks cute, but that enamel-blue bird is made of something tougher than steel. Very soon it will follow its instincts south over the English Channel, down through France and Spain and across the Straits of Gibralter. In a single non-stop odyssey it will then traverse the greatest desert on Earth."

He goes on to discuss the swallow's migratory journey in more detail, and to reflect on its symbolic resonance - the significance of its blue colour, and what that stands for in various contexts; the reason why Estonia recently chose the swallow as a national emblem; what its changing distribution tells us about climate change. But he ends with this: "We should cherish swallows for what they gift to us and for what they tell us about ourselves."

So what does this book gift to us? Well, it provides us with a few minutes of peace and focus on the natural world, in a day which at the moment is likely to feature too much dark news, too much to worry about and to fear. It shows us - or reminds us - how to look, and how each part of nature - including ourselves - is inextricably entwined in a vast and extraordinary whole.

It teaches us, perhaps, the value of stillness.

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