A journalist and travel writer pays homage to the “topographic delirium” of marginal lands.
When Cowen (co-author: Skimming Stones: And Other Ways of Being in the Wild, 2012) moved from London to Yorkshire, in northern England, he felt disoriented and displaced. Searching for connection, he discovered the natural richness of the liminal landscape at his town’s edges, where he felt a sense of “common ground.” The area teemed with wildlife, which the author evokes in language that ranges from poetic to distractingly clotted with imagery. Beech trees “grab at the sky with furry, green limbs, like mould-covered bones.” After a storm that stampedes through the countryside “with heavy, iron shoes,” “woods and wheat fields shook and cowered like slaves under an overseer’s whip.” For the most part, though, Cowen renders his observations with great passion and freshness. His new world is filled with wildlife: hares, mayflies, swifts, butterflies, ants, and owls, all of which inspire discourses on their habitat, life course (swifts, for example, make a round trip of more than 12,000 miles to breed in the U.K.), and cultural significance. He imagines himself as a deer, awakening to the scent of blood. “The hunt is coming and it is coming for me,” the deer perceives. “I feel my heart quicken, thump and prepare for flight.” When the deer leaps over him, he feels the “shock and excitement” of a genetic link to his own wildness, “a half-remembered thing, known, forgotten and recalled.” By far the most moving section deals with the birth of Cowen’s son, when finally he is “face to face with a life that has fought its way to this beginning, all the way from nothing, from eternity.” Words, he realizes, “all are insufficient to relay the hugeness of the shift…as if it’s you that’s been born.” The author’s delicate rendering of that moment outshines his sometimes-fevered descriptions of the changes in his “internal landscape” inspired by the edge-lands.
An unlikely landscape inspires a memoir of wonder and joy.