BOOK OF THE WEEK: This Luminous Coast

Jules Pretty, This Luminous Coast (Full Circle Editions, 2011)

Times Higher Education

14 April 2011

More than a century ago, the poet Edward Thomas began producing a series of books celebrating the countryside, the most famous being The Heart of England, The South Country and The Icknield Way. However, he soon became disenchanted with the vogue for rural prose that he had unwittingly encouraged. True, he felt able to single out for praise an early work by George Sturt, an author who would in due course make his name with Change in the Village. But Thomas’ commendation of Sturt relied on contrasting the latter’s “intimacy” and “simplicity” with the sanctimonious posturing of most of Sturt’s peers, whose language Thomas saw as excessively “didactic” and “oracular”. As to Thomas’ own concern, he wanted to learn, by exploring a locality, what might be involved in becoming “a citizen of the Earth” – his own telling phrase from A Literary Pilgrim in England.

Nature writing is currently enjoying a revival in England, thanks to Richard Mabey, Robert Macfarlane and others. Of course, the land has been drastically altered since Thomas’ day; but that only means that the dual sense of belonging and responsibility that he sought is needed more than ever. He would surely seek out those writings that register what is happening – without becoming either didactic or oracular, of course. He would surely approve of this handsome, austerely illustrated book by Jules Pretty.

A biologist by training and now an environmentalist, Pretty is the author of two indispensable works of theory, Agri-Culture: Reconnecting People, Land and Nature (2002) and The Earth Only Endures: On Reconnecting with Nature and our Place in It (2007). In the latter, he argues that “green places are good places” and that it is only through reaffirming our bond with the natural world that we will retain our humanity. Without abandoning this general principle, Pretty has now produced a much more particular kind of work – a personal account of a year spent walking along the edge of the East Anglian “bulge”, taking in Essex, Suffolk and Norfolk.

He begins This Luminous Coast by telling us: “This is a coast which is about to be lost. Not yet, but it will happen soon.” However, his book is not just a documentation of coastal erosion: it is a series of images of coastal nature and coastal culture; it is also a celebration of lives lived, both human and non-human, with birds, badgers, foxes and seals featuring as often as workmen, farmers, wildlife reserve managers and tourists.

It is a difficult book to categorise: part travel guide, part memoir, part meditation, part elegy. Although it is occasioned by a sense of urgency, it never preaches; nor does the author claim any privileged knowledge, despite the wealth of information that he discreetly imparts. It doesn’t demand our response, or even insist that we follow up the author’s findings. However, if we let it do its work, we will be subtly changed.

His avowed aim in setting out on his journey is to “walk the whole coast and its communities and ecologies, and learn what I could about the specificities of place”. This sets the tone, concerned but calm; we are not being offered an ecological jeremiad. That said, he does not hesitate to refer to constructions such as the Queen Elizabeth II Bridge as “monsters”, demonic characters in a myth that seems to lack a hero to challenge them.

But he avoids being sweepingly negative about change, always being prepared to differentiate between degrees of despoliation. Refusing to sneer at those scattered, basic dwellings with names such as “Shangri-la” and “The Haven” that were erected on the seaside plotlands of Essex in the mid-20th century, he laments the replacement of that clumsy approximation of a rural idyll by an arid landscape of sprawling housing estates and huge supermarkets. But it is enough for him simply to say so, then move on. This is an extensive journey, after all.

In undertaking it, he does not travel as a stranger. He teaches at the University of Essex; his family’s roots are in Suffolk and Norfolk; his own childhood home, which he visits towards the end of his trek, was in Blundeston, Norfolk. Past and present are continually overlapping.

In this respect, Pretty’s book is representative of a development in nature writing known as psychogeography. Uniting soul and land in one term, this discipline involves what Marina Warner calls “memory maps”. To paraphrase crudely, it seeks to demonstrate that a sense of place is also a sense of the past.

This approach is beautifully illustrated by Pretty’s account of his visit to the Norfolk farm owned by 98-year-old Eric Wortley. The farmer reports that the previous day he sat face to face with a robin, when it briefly flew into his kitchen and perched on a chair. This event prompts a recollection of his boyhood, duly recorded by the author: “If a robin came into the house, his mother would say, ‘Tha’ll be a death in the family.'” Past and present meet in an ostensibly trivial moment, allowing for further observations and insights. Eric and his two sons, who work with him, “are men of the land, perhaps a dying breed, and are in no way worldly. Their world is here, in this Fenland field, the bright-green leaves scattered over the ground, the roots of the beet crusted with inky soil.” It is this proximity to the land, we infer, that informs the farmer’s equanimity in the face of mortality: “Remembering that robin, he remarks: ‘You come in a year, and I won’t be ‘ere.'”

Pretty’s account of that visit has the intimacy and simplicity that Thomas praised in Sturt. These qualities come through, too, in his parting reflections: “The land, shaped, drained, hunted and farmed, sown and cropped, is better than when he started. It is also chock full of memories and a century of stories. It is firmly imprinted. And haunted.”

His own prose is haunted, not only by his family’s past, but also by the work of predecessors. Most notable is W.G. Sebald’s The Rings of Saturn, which is both a record of a walking tour of East Anglia and a meditation on the nature of time. This Luminous Coast inevitably echoes Sebald’s text, but it gives equal weight to the time of nature – which may always be relied on to put human beings in their place.

Certainly, we are repeatedly invited to see a given experience in the longest possible perspective. When Pretty hears a nightingale, no sooner has he pondered the meaning of its Roman and Saxon names than he’s speculating about the longstanding relationship of bird, flower and habitat. For instance: “Bluebells and nightingales don’t get on. The one needs open mature woodland; the other thick scrub.” Nor is that in itself enough. The author reminds us that the proliferation of plants depends on spring following winter in proper sequence – which now increasingly is not the case: “The old weather patterns seem disturbed. We might have to get used to this.”

We might also have to get used to this kind of book; but if it can help each of us become Thomas’ “citizen of the Earth” in these unpropitious times, that’s all to the good.