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.