Deep Country

Neil Ansell, whose memoir I’ve just read and loved of living alone in the most basic of basic cottages in the middle of rural Wales, is described on the back cover as a ‘latter-day Thoreau’. I can see where this comes from. Ansell embraces his ascetic isolation willingly, content to live for five years without plumbing or electricity, cooking in a cauldron over the fire and spending weeks on end without a glimpse of another human soul. But the role models that spring to mind for me are slightly different. Dr Doolittle, perhaps, or more pertinently, St Francis of Assisi. Because the joy in this narrative comes from the sharp-eyed and tender observations that Ansell makes about the wildlife that constitutes his daily society. ‘Solitude did not breed introspection,’ he writes, ‘quite the reverse. My days were spent outside, immersed in nature, watching.’ Ansell spends his time extravagantly, gloriously, in long evenings sitting on his porch, or down by the riverbank, lost in observation, when he isn’t tramping the forests and moors. How could he possibly be lonely, with the colony of bats in his roof, and mice raiding his larder, hares turning up at the back door as if for a visit, otters, polecats, cheeky stoats, and badgers all going about their business nearby?

But it’s the birds whose behavioural patterns make up the greater part of the narrative, and there is a special and completely charming affinity between them and their observer. There were so many utterly delightful descriptions that I can’t possibly quote them all, but I loved the yellowhammers who braved the Welsh winter and congregated in the trees around his cottage ‘A string of yellow bunting that almost glowed through the drizzle and the mist, like Christmas tree lights.’ The elegant kites, who never sit to eat ‘but swoop and snatch with consummate grace. It is a trick they pull off extravagantly well; to look so beautiful and stylish while feeding on carrion.’ The mated ravens who became a regular feature of the landscape: ‘he would sing to her, a quiet gentle trilling song that you would never expect to hear from a member of the crow family, and they would touch beaks tenderly.’ There are the buzzards who ‘are raggedy, untidy birds; every time they move they seem to lose another feather.’ And the flocks of redwings who put on an incredible display at the end of one winter’s thaw: ‘They must have been coming from miles away, from tens of miles away, until there were thousands of birds converging in one massive flock. They spiralled up into the sky, swelled into a huge bubble that suddenly burst, and scattered. They twisted and turned, shape-shifting, rising, falling, assembling, dispersing… It was an awesome spectacle; there were moments that made me want to gasp like people do at the grand finale of a fireworks display.’

Who knew that the kingdom of birds was so full of drama? Every year the same battles are played out between the different warring factions, struggling for territory and for food. Flocks taunt one another, there are brutal kills and skilful escapes, as well as love and tragedy. All of this expertly choreographed on the wing. It made me think of a kind of ongoing avian West Side Story. But perhaps this is due as much to the humane attentiveness of Neil Ansell who makes birdwatching as entertaining as people watching and not so very dissimilar. It’s his perspective that brings their otherwise bewildering patterns to life and meaning, out of a deeper insight into their ways than most of us are granted. We watch birds, he says ‘because of what they tell us about ourselves, and about our sense of what it means to be wild and free.’

I’ve realised in the past couple of years that I really love books about nature, although I am no dab hand with the real thing. If you twisted my arm behind my back I could probably identify a robin, and an owl, a magpie and a pigeon. That’s about it. This is nothing to the roll call of birds that line up in Deep Country – merlins and kingfishers, plovers and dippers, goosanders, whinchats, siskins and pipits. But this is what I like so much. A book like this broadens my horizons; it opens my imagination to another world, even if my town-dweller’s eyes are capable of walking past it blindly. And this is a cleansing book. It makes you feel pure inside to read it because the narrator is so lovingly engaged with the world around him, so free and clear himself. It is fascinating to read about the way Neil Ansell lived in his rustic house; his self-sufficiency and his fearless ability to range around the countryside, even in darkness, and never get lost (I get lost in the supermarket!). There’s one section of the book where he falls ill, quite seriously, with a thyroid problem which leads him to comment on the way that illnesses that affect hormonal balance have the power to alter our identities, something that gave me much pause for thought on a personal level (and I think it’s absolutely true). And I was wondering whether I particularly liked nature narratives because their authors have become so clear-sighted, so wise, so straightforward and accurate in their observations, because the natural world itself is both complex yet reliably patterned, so persistently full of both sorrow, hardship and joy in a way that must simply be accepted as the order of things. I came away from this book enriched and enlightened and entertained. I feel sure I will read it again.


33 thoughts on “Deep Country

  1. I got this after having read a review on Tom’s blog. It sounds very appealing.
    I like birds. There are not many now in winter only ravens, maybe crows but soon the little ones will return when it will hopefully one day get warm again (it’s so incredibly cold at the moment).
    Hormones are quite mysterious. Any imbalance can affect you deeply, it’s true.

    • Caroline – in the memoir, Neil Ansell talks a lot about the birds that it is still possible to see in winter (probably slightly different in Wales to Switzerland, however). I do hope you enjoy this – I found it very well written.

  2. I love books like this, for the same reasons as you, it seems. The cleansing, the learning, the “peace that passeth understanding.” This sounds beautiful, and is going on my list of Must Reads. Thank you.

  3. I do like the sound of this book, and for it to have left you ‘enriched, enlightened and entertained’ it must indeed be a fine piece.
    Have you read The Wild Places by Robert Macfarlane? It’s ‘an open space’ of a book and a beautiful account of his walks through Britain’s wilderness.

    • Ms Thrifty – I believe the book is being serialised on the radio, so you might have heard an advert for it? Anyway, would love to know what you think! Do remember to tell me!

  4. I love the way that you’ve described this one. On a related note, Graeme Gibson’s A Bedside Book of Birds is a gorgeous volume, perfect for dipping in and out of; I’m not a particularly bird-loving reader, but I wholly enjoyed the time that I spent with it.

  5. Sounds like a lovely peaceful sort of book. I’m rather attached to hot water and indoor plumbing, but I do love spending time outdoors just sitting and watching. It really does help me find a centered, quiet place.

    • Stefanie, well I can’t but agree! I would be appalling to live with if I didn’t have hot water and indoor plumbing. I’m very grateful to other people for embracing the sorts of experience I’d as soon run away from! But I also agree that nature can be very calming and beneficial indeed.

  6. You say you like nature narratives and this is now the second memoir you have posted on in the past two weeks where the writer has gone off into nature to rough it. Is that what made you pick this and “Drinking the Rain” up? Or was it just serendipity?
    I could not even identify a magpie. I used to walk years ago with a friend who would name the trees and plants we passed them. I had pretty much no clue about them either! 🙂

    • Lol! Do you know, I actually thought about that – it’s only, what, a week or so, since I posted on Drinking the Rain? It was actually serendipity, but it does show how my usual tendency is to read for variety. I don’t normally choose the same content or the same genre within a couple of weeks. And don’t get me started on trees! I can do a horse chestnut and a willow and that is probably it! 🙂

  7. Love the sound of this one. There was a display of drawings an painting by the Romantics that I saw recently, which talked about how much attention they paid to the details of the natural world and how that informed their style. There was this beautiful picture of leaves draw in super detail, with a quote from someone about how once you really look at a leaf you realise hw much you miss seeing in daily life. Your description of the author’s observations reminded me of that. Like Ruthiella I think I’m noticing patterns in your reading right now – are you longing to head off for some peace and solitude, or are you working on a writing project perhaps?

    I’m ok with identifying animals and can make a stab at bird identifications by family traits (all those nature shows and I’m totally addicted to anything with Chris Packham in it) but am terrible at plants. I can have a go at guessing trees, because when I was little the school would take us out to the park across the road to look at the different kinds of leaves, which seems to have stuck with me, but I don’t think I should ever go foraging.

    • Jodie – I know! It is funny to post about such similar books in a short space of time. I am often drawn to the idea of a retreat, but Mister Litlove won’t let me go on one because he’s afraid I won’t come back. 🙂 That being said, I could NOT manage without my creature comforts. The ascetic life is one I simply could not hack. Just between you and me, I am on a writing project, though! So you are very astute. Your last line really made me laugh. I remember once going on a nature walk when I was about 12. We found some dead leaves but that was about it. East Anglia is very far from Paradise….

  8. This sounds interesting, but that’s usually the case with your reviews. I’ve always had a sneaking fancy to go off on some such break, like some less gifted Witgenstein, just to think about the complexities of life from a distance, and so gain some perspective. I know this is just illusory though. No services, no shops, and Oh NO, no books! Perhaps if there was a weekly delivery van/library…

    • Oh I know, what would we do without the books??? Well, I for one would expect to start hyperventilating. I honestly think these days that if I don’t get at least an hour or two’s reading in a 24 hour period I would start to droop and sicken and pale. Now, a long extended stay in a library, or even in my own library…. yup, I could get behind that! 🙂

  9. Your post has really annoyed me – nothing you’ve done, honest. 🙂 It’s just that it reminded me of another Thoreau-like author that I once read and would love to read again. But can I recall his name – not for the life of me. I’m sure it began with an M… Must be old age! (You’ve also added to my TBR list which is already long enough!) But thank you very much for the post.
    Scriptor Senex

    • Phew, I was alarmed for a moment there! I had a quick wrack of the old brains, but couldn’t immediately come up with an author’s name. You’ve got me intrigued now – let me know what it turns out to be if/when it comes back to you!

  10. What a lovely sounding book. When I was reading essays a lot of them from the Philip Lopate book were nature essays and I was surprised by how much I enjoyed reading them. I always mean to pick up a whole book about nature, but I never seem to get around to it. It sounds like this–going off to live simply in nature went much better than the Alix Shulman book!

    • Danielle – I had no idea that I enjoyed reading about nature so much, until I started on these sorts of books. But I think it’s almost that they fulfill a fantasy for me. I cannot imagine myself happily living without running water – so it’s good of other people to do that for me! I did like this better than the Alix Shulman book, although that was flawed in all sorts of interesting ways. But this one was very calming.

  11. A lot of this is rubbish – Neil did not live on his own at Penlan for 5 years and nor is the environment as extreme as he makes out, although there is no electric or running water there… Equally, there are plenty of properties that abound in these hills… Mine being one of them. I guess you are allowed some degree of poetic license but in my book this borders on deception!

    • I felt that the author was quite upfront about there being a reasonable amount of civilisation around him, and the solitary stretches were clearly in winter, when the weather was dreadful and the farmers weren’t out and about. It also seemed to me that he chose to focus on the times he spent alone observing nature, and not to talk more about the visits he enjoyed from friends and the ordinary interactions he had with locals. And no electricity or running water is pretty extreme to me. So I didn’t feel deceived.

      In all honesty, I would have felt much better about your criticisms if you had been able to put your name to them. I don’t encourage anonymous comments as they are, almost without exception, on the mean side.

  12. Pingback: Best Books of 2012 | Tales from the Reading Room

  13. The book does not explicitly give the location and it’s reasonable to assume that the map is partly fictitious, but the descriptions of general surroundings and in particular the feature described in his long wandering so, pretty sure of the locality of pennant. I’d have to explore on foot to find the real cottage, as is maps and Google Earth only help so far – there,s no street view at Penlan! Alas I live in Outer Hebrides, so my desire to explore those oak-forests and rolling grass moors, the daytime skies filled with birds, the night with stars, all the way from Wye to West Wales are likely to remain dreams.

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