Root Causes and The Seeds of a Cure

By Adrian Higgins
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, July 12, 2008

ROYDON, England At the fringe of his two-acre garden, Richard Mabey stops alongside an oak tree to point out a nesting box he put up for the barn owls.

He's seen owls in the adjoining field, and while they have yet to take up home in the oak tree, Mabey anticipates a day when they will. This hope for the future, in itself, is a small triumph for one of Britain's best-known nature writers. There was a time when there was no future for Mabey, not even a past, just a deep, numbing sense of despair induced by nothing in particular and everything in general. His was a classic bout of profound depression, marked by days spent in bed with the curtains drawn against the very countryside that had shaped his life's work. The breakdown cost him the family home where he had lived for 60 years, and three years of his life. We know this, because Mabey did a most un-English thing: He told the world about it.

"Nature Cure," published in Britain in 2005 and last year in the United States, recounts the origins of his illness, its paralyzing effects and how, moving from the wooded Chiltern Hills northwest of London to the bleaker coastal county of Norfolk, he began to right himself.

What is unusual about this account, apart from its existence, is that it is not an emotion-fueled catharsis funneled into words, but a clear-eyed assessment of what happened and how a new environment -- as well as a new love -- helped Mabey to heal. The naturalist, now 67, chose to examine the event in the same way that he had pondered the idea of swifts sleeping on the wing, or regional names for cherry trees, or the tufts of sedge grasses in the marshes.

"I wanted to view it through an ecological prism and look at it as a biological state," he says.

That journey of discovery, however, was made harder by the fact that melancholy has no raison d'etre in biological terms. Physical disease has a purpose -- often it is caused by a pathogen that thrives on the sick. But depression, he writes, "seems to have no connection with the biological business of living at all. And what it did to me was unearthly, in that it negated, cut dead, all the things in which I most believed: the importance of sensual engagement with the world, the link between feeling and intelligence, the inseparability of nature and culture."

Which brings us back to barn owls. Perhaps his illness, he speculates in the book, is some sort of human version of a phenomenon seen in that saucer-eyed bird: Faced with peril, it faints. This "vegetative retreat" offers a period of inward protection, and the owl awakes when the threat passes. But for Mabey, the faint lasted from 1999 to 2001.

Today, frankly, it is difficult to think of Mabey as morose, or even 67. He has a round and boyish face, essentially unlined and crowned with a mop of hair. He is chatty and given to smiles. He lives in an idyllic setting, a 400-year-old cottage as organic as its surroundings, the walls made from the clay dug from the garden (leaving a duck pond) and crowned with a picture-postcard thatched roof. There are an orchard, a walled vegetable garden, herbaceous borders and rose bowers. A converted shed serves as a comfortable writer's lair.

Giving a tour, he shows where he uses a mower to nibble paths in and around a meadow "like an herbivore" and stops at a wooded corner of the meadow to lift two bell jars sheltering self-seeded bee orchids. "Darwin thought they would become extinct. They're showing no signs whatever of becoming extinct," he muses. He places the jar back over the orchid with the tenderness of someone who cares about his world once more.

* * *

Mabey's breakthrough book was his first -- "Food for Free," a guide to foraging that has sold half a million copies since it was first published in 1972 and is credited with helping to stir a modern interest in Britain's countryside. In the 1980s, he wrote a biography of Gilbert White, the 18th-century naturalist and cleric whose "The Natural History of Selbourne" is considered the model for environmental writing.

A decade later, Mabey tackled his most ambitious book, "Flora Britannica," in which he tells the social and cultural history of his country's native plants. This followed the death of his mother, for whom he had been caring in the family home where he had lived almost all his life.

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