Ground Work is a collection of essays by different authors, many of whom are renowned nature writers. The essays, as the subtitle suggests, all address the idea of people and places. Some take a small, personal space that means something to them, perhaps from their childhood, like 'Tipping Buckets' (discussing the fountain of that name in Liverpool) by Paul Farley. Others look at larger landscapes and their place within it, like Barbara Bender’s 'Notes from a Devon Village'. The places discussed are diverse and include both rural and urban areas. Although most of the places are in the UK, a few pieces look further afield.
One particularly captivating chapter looks at the relationship of the indigenous people of the Canadian Arctic and their landscape. Hugh Brody worked with local people and studied how they used their landscape to ensure they had legal rights over all the areas that they use. The description of creating the “map biography” of each member of the population is engrossing, and makes you wonder what kind of map would be drawn for your own biography. It is a fascinating look at how deeply people are connected to where they live.
In a similar, but much more local vein, 'The Echoing Green' by Ken Warpole discusses the importance of urban parks as communal places, and how they break down barriers between people. The value of nature to people is well-known, and this piece highlights the importance of green space in cities and towns.
Some chapters are more whimsical and poetic, almost philosophical in their nature. This is only to be expected with a topic like places and people, but the diversity of the essays is refreshing. Personally, I preferred the more factual stories, looking at people and their connection to a place and the other people who share them. There are stories of fossils collected on the east coast of England by Ray, a collector, and shown to Julia Blackburn, who marvelled at all the objects found on the coast and the story they can tell about a place. Stories of a restored farm in Sussex, and all the changes that have been made by Adam Nicholson, reflect on ownership of the landscape. Stories of cuckoos in the fens, and the changes in populations over the years as Nick Davies reflects on bringing his young daughters to see the birds. Places inspire stories, and that is evident in Ground Work.
This collection is full of fascinating people and places, and the variety in writing style and content makes it easy to dip in and out of this book. There are over 30 different short essays, and each is different from the last. There is no thematic organisation, and essays are ordered simply by virtue of the surname of their authors. This makes it easy to read in order, if you prefer, as each essay is different from the last. There are of course similarities between some of the essays, with childhood places, long-term homes, and changes over time all being themes that run through multiple essays. But each chapter has its own story to tell, and each is worth reading to explore the differing perceptions of the authors. Unfortunately, all of the authors in this collection are white, and as a consequence it feels like there are many missing voices. The editor, Tim Dee, acknowledges this in the introduction, and states that no other authors could be found to diversify this selection. This is a great shame, as these voices would undoubtedly have benefited this collection of musings on place.
The collection also reflects on the changing world we live in, and the impact that humanity has on the planet. In 'A Wood Over One’s Head', Richard Mabey explores his mixed feelings about ownership of a woodland, and his compulsion to manage and interfere with it. Tim Dee also reflects on this in the introduction, in one particularly memorable line citing “the ruinous activities of just one soft-skinned, warm-blooded, short-lived, pedestrian ape” as determining the future of our planet. Helen MacDonald’s piece, 'Tekels Park', reflects on her childhood home, and on the failed stewardship of nature by people. She concludes, “during this sixth extinction we who may not have time to do anything else must write what we can now, to take stock.” Although this sentiment may seem pessimistic, there is value in recording what we have now, and preserving it. This book does just that - it is a collection of places, preserved in writing and memory, and shared with each other.
Beth Preston is a PhD student at the University of Exeter, studying banded mongooses. She is interested in wildlife conservation, ecology, animal behaviour, and people’s connection to nature. Follow her on Twitter @spratchkin.