All the lovely silence has gone: A Review of ‘Ash before Oak’ by Jeremy Cooper

Lockdown was a situation that could not continue nor should it.  It has caused far too much suffering.  But there were a couple of benefits – a slowing down and some peace – if not peace of mind then peace and quiet.   Birdsong too.  The birds are back fighting a losing battle with horrendous building works and the smell of traffic fumes on the air.

On another level, this happens internally.  Our brains start running horror movies in our heads.   In the vicissitues and general exhaustingness of life, we  lose our peace of mind, our lovely silence.

Increasingly and perhaps because of this I have been attracted to works on and about   the natural world.  This week I have read Ash before Oak by Jeremy Cooper published by indie press Fitzcarraldo Editions.  This is the second book I have purchased from them  the other being Grove by Esther Kinsky which I am also reading.  All Fitzcarraldo’s books are given a uniform dark blue cover.   I’m not a great fan of the look.    I can understand the commercial imperatives but maybe  give an artist or graphic designer some work folks as they have commercial imperatives too!

This book is way better than its  bland cover suggests, combining as it does two subjects very close to my heart – the natural world and mental health.    It’s hard to get much more topical than that at the moment.

Author Jeremy Cooper has an original author bio.  He has a track record of expertise on art postcards, having appeared in the first 24 episode sof the BBC’s Antiques Roadshow.  He is also a novelist and writer of non-fiction works.

Ash before Oak is definitely not about postcards.   It is fiction written in the form of a series of journal entries which chart the narrator’s stay at a house Somerset where he is renting a house on an estate called Cothelstone.  Initially the book appears to be a record of a man’s attempts to tame this house, garden and its surrounding woodland,  as the narrator learns to tell sorrel from not-sorrel and to plant Field Scabious and Ox Eye daisy in his new wildflower meadow, much of which he does ably assisted by local carpenter Beth.

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“Three cats live here now, in the old part of the cottage… “

But slowly into the lovely descriptions of flora and fauna, the ‘still warm sun of a cloudless October morning’  it becomes clear that all is not well in this rural idyll.   This is a man who has lived in the city and had other lives and other careers.  For someone in that situation to move to the country and choose a different life is not at all unusual.  Yet there has to be a ‘why’.  Ever since The Tenant of Wildfell Hall there has had to be a why.  Why is he here? It is a question that the narrator asks himself too.

A story that begins as an endearing battle with a mouse that moves into the house and refuses to move out suddenly becomes worrying, as do the references amidst the descriptions to feelings of being trapped and anxious.   Trapped?  When surrounded by all this natural wonder?  Something can’t be right.  And surely enough, something isn’t.  The fragility of the narrator’s mental state becomes apparent.

And while connections between nature and recovery from mental illness are not earth shatteringly new, they do not need to be.  It is the writing which counts and Ash before Oak is beautifully written.   The advantage of the journalistic entry style of writing is the author can get carried away with memories of hearing Alfred Brendel play or an anecdote about the composer Messiaen playing the piano in a prisoner of war camp, it’s fine to pop it in.   There are many references to both art and music throughout the book and these build a picture of a former life lived in London,  but one that has been abandoned.

Not many books have felt to me to be relevant or indeed as easy to read during this time of the world’s desperate uncertainty and difficulty – at least that has been my personal experience.  But Ash Before Oak felt completely right.  It is a complex book cleverly written which reveals it’s secrets slowly, or perhaps some of them not at all.

This Fight Belongs to Us All. Diary of a Young Naturalist, Dara McAnulty

As we all go quietly crazy during this crisis it is worth remembering that for some the  constant routine, walking the same route day in, day out, knowing exactly what comes next,  is a positive, necessary even, for stability and mental health.  But things are not going to be the same for anyone.  Regardless of the virus, the future has a big question mark over it.

Writers of the future will have their work cut out to represent what it was like to be alive in the year 2020. We have a crisis within a crisis.  Corona within climate crisis. Do present day writers and poets have their heads stuck firmly in the climate crisis sand? Maybe some.

But one young man is already ahead of the game.   Dara McAnulty, a teenager living in Northern Ireland with his family has written Diary of a Young Naturalist published by the excellent Little Toller Books   –  an independent family run press in Dorset which publishes books on the natural world.

I am grateful to have found this press on a list of indie publishers on Susan Osborne’s blog A Life in BooksThank you Susan.

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Firstly, Dara’s book as physical item.  At £16 the book is not cheap.  But it is such a joy to hold a well produced hard cover copy with an attractively designed dust jacket after years of struggling with e-reader annotation systems most of which are clunky and dire.

This copy is a joy to hold;  the pleasing heft of good quality paper .   It reminds me of a time when there were book collectors, and that books were collected as much for appearance as content.

Divided like the year into sections on Spring, Summer, Autumn and Winter the book is a diary about a young boy’s love of, understanding of and connections to the natural world.   Despite being only 15 years of age, McAnulty writes with a passionate lyricism,  a wisdom – and yes, vision –  about birds, plants, animals and trees.   And oh boy, can this young man write.

I’m lying on the ground looking up at the branches of an oak tree.  Dappled light is shining through the canopy, the leaves whisper ancient incantations.  This tree, in its living stage, rooted in sights and sounds that I’ll never know, has witnessed extinctions and wars, loves and losses.  I wish we could translate the language of trees – hear their voices, know their stories.”

Sadly some of Dara’s school friends do not understand or share his passion and it is clear that he suffers cruelly from bullying at school and from a sense of belonging nowhere except the forests, nature reserves and gardens that he craves.   The fear of school – its rigid lack of understanding of an individual child’s needs, its focus on conformity  – is a constant although sometimes unspoken presence in the early stages of the story.  Anyone who knows the  feeling of being an outsider, can take comfort from this writing as well as from the victories it describes.  And in Summer, he finds a friend…

In fact the very existence of this book is an indictment of educational systems.    Dara tells us that his parents  were once told by a teacher:  ‘Your son will never be able to complete a comprehension, never mind string a paragraph together.’

Yet, as Dara says, here we are.

And where we are – or desperately need to be – is recognising, encouraging and educating the naturalists of the future rather than disparaging them.  Because we need them badly.    Thank goodness young people are taking the lead – the school strikes for climate for example in which Dara has taken part.   These young people are the ones that will have to solve the problems that self-serving older generations have left behind.  Our legacy of destruction.

Yes this is a fantastic book and yes I heartily recommend it to anyone even vaguely concerned about the disappearance of our natural world.   But mostly it is a call to action.    Dara doesn’t want anyone to tell him how great he is, or what a role model he is. He just wants us to educate our children and grandchildren to join in his conservation efforts.

The RSPB website reminds us:

 Nature is still in crisis, with more than 40 million birds having vanished from UK skies in just 50 years and one in ten of our wildlife are critically endangered.

Nature has powerful allies in the new, young generations who refuse to accept expedience and compromise, who do not rely on vague hopes that it will probably be OK or someone else will sort it.   This fight belongs to us all.