Common Ground is an exploration of place that is in some ways endemic to the ‘new nature writing’ of our age, and yet it is also riddled with originality, pronounced detail and a freshness to its vibe that only journalist Rob Cowen could produce. It tells the story of his new life in Yorkshire, having moved house from the metropolis of London. At the beginning of the book he is about to become a father, and this part of his life is intimately discussed within the text, with whole sections within chapters set aside to reflect on this particular experience, occasionally drawing on the reality of his wife Rosie’s ‘natural’ struggles, of childbirth for example.
Much of Common Ground is set in the ‘edgelands’ around Cowen’s new northern home. The characters he meets along the way include a fox, a brown hare and a flock of swifts. He is also careful to draw on a number of human characters. He aims to connect the reader as directly and intimately as possible with this small patch of ground, sometimes through his experience, sometimes through his descriptions of the animals he watches and sometimes through the historical lens of others who have connected with the place. Certainly I found myself becoming drawn in to this place as I read, although it was a strange experience as it came seemingly third hand: firstly, into Cowen himself, then translated onto paper and then sieved into my mind as I read.
The edge-land is overpowering at times. Consolatory, cold, late afternoons before rain are painted a beautiful duck-egg blue and pink and sweetened with drifting woodsmoke. Rooks blow across the narrow aperture of my vision like the wind-blown ash.
I found myself in awe of Cowen’s use of the English language. Even though his words have many leanings towards the poetry of new nature writing, it seems to lack the poeticisms apparent elsewhere, to the extent where the language overcomes the reader and pushes us away from the place itself.
He is careful not to write exclusively of the edge-land itself. We are occasionally taken elsewhere. He also draws on the bigger picture. This is a commentary on our self-removal from the natural world itself. I particularly enjoyed a section mid-way through the book where we meet a character, sipping coffee in Caffe Nero. We are told his story and how he rejected money and so-called success, casting out doubt and dissatisfaction and leading a life whereby the subtleties of the natural world dominated his lived experiences. Cowen raises an important point here: that the priorities of western society continue to drive us towards consumption and to blinker our eyes from the wonders that surround us.
We live in a time whereby many of us have forgotten what it is like to know a single area of land intimately. I am personally liable on this front. I spent my formative years doing so, living through my childhood imagination and defending my ‘territory’ in the core areas I would play, walk and explore. Since then, I have moved around a lot. This has in some ways broadened my experience and knowledge to include places that are ‘greater’ than the local can provide. However, I think that it has also tarnished my ability to see and experience true subtlety in the way that you can at a single place over a long amount of time. To know a place, we must experience it intimately. We must not be afraid that it will change but we must learn to understand its uniqueness and to appreciate this.
Cowen succeeds in bringing the human and non-human closer together, although there still seems to be a divide in the experience. Is his an imposed venture or something that he was naturally drawn to? I am unsure whether presenting human beings as part of the natural world is something that the written word can ever truly convey, when read through a modern perspective, in the way that being there in the moment and directly experiencing it can.
Common Ground is a successful protrait of a place as well as an encouraged reflection on where we are, where we are heading and how our modern personal psychological state has been bound in such as way that we have perhaps forgotten the need to return to the local; return to the edge-lands. It is a profile of people as much as animals and plants. Rather than a traditional elegy, Common Ground subtly encourages reflection whilst also presenting reality as Cowen experienced it.
This is a mesmerizing and enchanting book; the kind of text that you never want to end. It will capture your imagination and perhaps encourage a reconsideration of the forgotten parts of landscape.
If you have read it, I would love to hear your views below.
2 thoughts on “Book Review: ‘Common Ground’ by Rob Cowen”
An astonishing book, highly recommended. I had the great fortune to be born and grow up on the patch of land described in the book. An idyllic 1950s childhood. Having left for university, however, I never looked back. Studied German and French, married a Spanish girl – my world got bigger. This book reminds me so powerfully of what I’ve lost. Please keep hold of this invaluable corner of England -and all others like it – for future generations. They will be healthier and happier for it.