12 November 2016

Review: Common Ground by Rob Cowen

Genre: Natural history, memoir
Themes: Seasons, births and death, man and nature, animals, history.

Books about intimate natural history appeal to me almost as much as travelogues do. These books usually deal with one person's view of a single place, natural phenomenon or animal and can offer one both a very narrow and a wide view of the subject, often delving deep into history, anthropology, zoology, botany and geology. Others skim along the surface and present us with a glittering snapshot of a place frozen at a point in time. My favourites of this sub-genre of both the memoir and of popular science are The Sound of a Wild Snail Eating by Elisabeth Tova Bailey, The Land of Little Rain by Mary Austin and Desert Solitaire by Edward Abbey.

This book is not quite at the level of excellence as those three, but it is enjoyable and makes for a nice, slow read.

Cowen began gathering material for his intimate study of the natural history of a bit of edgeland in his home-town of Bilton, a suburb of Harrogate, Yorkshire, just after he moved back there after living in London for many years. He was feeling uprooted and confused and wandered out into this edgeland in the darkness of a winter‘s evening (it was New Years Eve, as a matter of fact).

The place seemed to call to him and he kept returning there and eventually began a naturalistic and historical study of the area and of man‘s place in it, observing it from that day and on into the following winter. Chapters are devoted to different animals and to the landscape, and he imagines the place from the viewpoint of several different animals and people, some through their own eyes, imagined or quoted, and some in the third person. We also get to follow him and his wife as they navigate impending parenthood and experience the birth of their first child.

The whole book is charming, but Cowen is at his best in the fictional chapters, for example where he gives us the first-person narrative of a tramp he meets on the edge of the river that delineates one side of the roughly triangular edgeland or puts himself in the place of a roebuck running for his life from hunters and their hounds. 

Recommended.

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