Jonathan Cape, 2014; hbk; xii + 240pp
ISBN 978-0224-09965-3 £14.99
To use an optical analogy, Mark Cocker has great depth of field. His last book was the monumental Birds and People (2013), a panoramic survey of cultural responses to birds from all round the world; but he now focuses down on the wildlife in just one small parish – the village of Claxton in Norfolk, where he has lived for the last 12 years. Readers will already have a sense of this area and what it means to him from his earlier Crow Country (2007) and from his regular Guardian ‘Country Diary’ contributions. Indeed, Claxton largely consists of a selection of these diary pieces, now further shaped and polished and strung like a set of exquisite bright beads on the line of a year’s calendar. This is the art of the miniaturist, a concentration of perception and its expression that evokes the universal from the closely observed particular. It is the prose equivalent of the Haiku.
The particulars in question are very various. Birds feature prominently, of course: in the winter months the local Barn Owls, Peregrines and the famous gatherings of Rooks are part of his regular cast, along with visiting Bewick’s Swans with their ‘woodwind calls â€¦ rather resembling wind chimes’; and through the year’s turning we meet the changing succession of spring, summer, autumn and then again winter migrants. Occasionally there are rarer visitors, but the whole emphasis is on the ordinary, or rather the extraordinary in the ordinary – like the wonderful epiphany of the Spotted Flycatcher in his garden on 3rd September, ‘duller than any Dunnock’ but ‘a rainbow of colour expressed in movement’. But birds are only the more conspicuous players among the dramatis personae of the village year. Cocker has made himself – has been inspired to become – an all-round naturalist, who now takes as much delight in St Mark’s Flies and Meadow Browns as in Marsh Harriers. We encounter all these and more in his sharp-eyed, inquisitive company.
The seasonal cycle of the year provides the structure for the book, in which the pieces are arranged in chronological order in twelve chapters, one for each month. One can therefore drop in anywhere and get a prompt about what to look out for that week in one’s own patch. I tested this while contemplating this review – and there in his 26th August entry was a captivating account of the Poplar Hawk-moth I had just caught that day in my own moth trap (‘ a compound of the monstrous and of perfection’). Each week offers a new discovery, or a new perception of familiar experiences.
But one of the most important elements of this book is of a different kind and comes right at the end – his Claxton Parish Species List, covering all the taxa he has so far identified in his village. This should perhaps have been given more prominence in the publisher’s blurb, since it is really more like the vertebrae of the book than its appendix. Lists have always been important to naturalists, not just for the harmless fun of the tally stick, but as an inventory of our natural heritage that can serve as an index of secular change and a benchmark for conservation. Cocker also insists that many of the vernacular English names of these wonderful organisms contain within them their own narrative histories and affirmations and are equally deserving of wonder and celebration. Think of the Ghost Moth, Smoky Wainscot, Common Stinkhorn, Primrose and leaf miners, each an invitation into a more intimate and understanding relationship with its bearer. These lists are in the end a kind of meditation in themselves, encouraging the biblical injunction, ‘Go, and do thou likewise.’
This is nature writing of a high order and Cocker now takes his place in a grand tradition of diarists that runs from Gilbert White through such authors as Henry Thoreau, Richard Jefferies and John Baker. Perhaps particularly Thoreau, and the comparison is a suggestive one. There is a freshness, vitality and sense of authenticity in the flow of the prose, but also a strong undercurrent of deep concern about our natural environment that speaks of some larger engagement and vision. Claxton is probably Mark Cocker’s most important book to date, and we are left hoping that these themes will be developed in his next one.