Deep Country by Neil Ansell
Deep Country: Five Years in the Welsh Hills
by Neil Ansell
Hamish Hamilton; Hardback;
Price £16.99; 206 pages
There have been an awful lot of books around recently that revive the idea of a Thoreauvian withdrawal from modernity and a retreat into the apparently once again unproblematic conception of ‘nature.’ The tropes are, as they were for Thoreau at Walden Pond, stillness (as opposed to pace); difficulty (as opposed to convenience) and simplicity (as opposed to complexity), and Ansell manages – just – to avoid their turning into cliché. Nonetheless, Deep Country is an account of just such a flight, its author Neil Ansell moving from London to the disused Penlan cottage in ‘the remotest northern reaches of Breconshire.’ Once the holes in the roof have been boarded up, he learns how to cook on a fire, grow vegetables, forage for mushrooms, and perhaps in doing so find ‘who I was when I could no longer define myself in terms of my relation to others.’
As well as treading this somewhat familiar ground, Deep Country does fall prey to reductive anthropomorphism at times. Ansell projects human emotions in a manner you would never find in J.A. Baker’s The Peregrine – claiming, for instance, that ‘The falcon doesn’t seem to be hunting, more just celebrating life.’ Baker’s obsessively intense, semi-mystical record that traces peregrines across their Essex hunting grounds is clearly influential on Ansell, for whom various hawks and raptors, but especially the goshawks that have only recently returned to that part of Wales, are the central focus of the book’s ornithological attentions. Like his predecessor, Ansell is understandably unable to resist the allure of birds of prey and, also like Baker, he tracks their flight paths, which form a pattern:
‘The world I knew was a ball of wool, criss-crossed with a network of invisible pathways, like the gossamer that would be revealed only on a dewy morning. And I wanted to unravel it.’
What saves Deep Country from the pitfall of being a sentimentalised animal-communion journal is Ansell’s detailed and impressive depth of zoological knowledge. Ansell is above all a birder, is pretty good on mammals and admits to knowing next to nothing about fish. His comments on the ravens, hawks and falcons that make Penlan their territory are illuminating, and the admission that ‘I could forgive a bullfinch anything’ is charming. These are combined with appealing etymological detail, revealing the rural origins of now commonplace idioms: ‘With the weather here so unpredictable it is reassuring to have several weeks’ wood in reserve in the woodshed; a backlog.’
Aside from all the animals, Deep Country is remarkable too for the sheer length of time Ansell spent in his Welsh cottage: to go five years with next to no regular society is presumably challenge enough, but the length of time is as significant for his role as naturalist as for his exploration of self. He needed those five years to be able to constantly cross-reference and compare behaviour between the same seasons in different years, to demonstrate patterns and anomalies.
Deep Country is so grounded in such close observation, ‘my attention constantly focused away from myself and onto the natural world around me,’ that the human consciousness is almost lost. It is, thank goodness, no clichéd finding of the self that is the payoff for such extended solitude, ‘not…knowing myself better,’ but instead a disappearance that comes from all that looking. It is a way of ‘forgetting I was there. I had become a part of the landscape, a stone.’ This too might sound hackneyed if it weren’t reinforced by careful and expert recording of the things watched. But instead that naturalist’s dedication makes Deep Country a valuable addition to the current vogue for this sort of book, rather than a cashing-in on its popularity.