Thursday, 16 April 2009

Book review: "A year in a life of an English Meadow", by Andy Garnett and Polly Devlin

This book was another that I came across at the Bath Literature Festival, when I attended a talk by the author, Polly Devlin. It was a passionate and heartfelt talk about her love affair with an English meadow.

The book starts off with a description of the meadows of previous generations - land that provided for man and nature alike. It is a beautifully written lament for those days. With some justification she compares modern fields - seen by many as the epitome of nature - as green deserts, where nature has been choked into supporting one solitary species. Hedges are grubbed out, land dried and trees uprooted; the loser in this process is undoubtedly wildlife diversity.

Polly Devlin admits that she was not particularly interested in meadows at first, and that it took a road to Damascus moment to convert her to the cause. She and her husband bought a ramshackle farmhouse in the middle of some fields; they bought the house itself and some of the surrounding fields, whilst the majority of the land got sold off to other farmers. Six months later, the landscape had been transformed. All of the other fields except one had been devastated, and her mission began. She bought that field at the last minute, and this book is about her love affair with that field.

I try and look back to my childhood in the seventies and I do not get the same memories - the house I was raised in was surrounded by arable fields, and I was more likely to find the broken black remains of clay-pigeons than any flowers. I was born to late to remember meadows in their prime. As she says:
To take just one county, the county where we live: Natural England now knows of fewer than twenty wildflower-rich meadows in Somerset, when there were probably well over seven hundred in 1984. For years these wonderful fields were designated as Unimproved - there's newspeak for you.
The first inspection of the meadow after she bought it revealed 88 different plant species; now there are over 130. But the meadow is far more important than that; the plants support insects; the insects supports birds; and the birds support birds of prey. The meadow is at the base of a pyramid of life that has been lost in so many areas of the country.

It is a shame that the book has failed to capture the power and passion of Polly Devlin's speech that day in Bath - then again, it is exceptionally hard to capture vivid oratory on the printed page - it was as though her tears formed a new type of punctuation.

The pictures make up for this. The book is lavishly illustrated with images of the flora in the meadow, both general photos in-situ and more detailed images of pressed flowers. These alone are worth the cover price of the book. They are arranged in chronological order; the sorts of plants that you will see at whatever time of year. They are all here; from the sedges to the daisies, the grasses to the thistles. The pictures have been expertly taken, and are vivid enough to be taken into a field to identify plants.

Having said all this, there is one significant point that this book misses. The timeless image of the country meadow presented in this book is false. The country meadow she is protecting is as manufactured by man as our current landscape is. It suited our predecessors to have meadows; so they had them. The fact that so much work is needed to keep the meadow as a meadow shows the fragility and unnaturalness of it. Will people in a couple of centuries' time be working to preserve a late-twentieth century arable farm?

It is a minor criticism. The work that they have put in to preserve the meadow is to be applauded, and the book has caused me to take a closer look at the flora and fauna when I walk.

The book ends with a short story, 'a night in the meadow', where Polly and her husband attempt to spend a night under the stars in their meadow. It is a cold, dewy night and their dogs constantly bark, but her love for that meadow is evident. Again, the short segment of the text is brilliantly written.

The richness of the text in this book makes up for its sparsity, and each of the exquisite images counts for a thousand words. It is a word of art. I would give this book 5 out of 5.

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