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The East Country: Almanac tales of valley and shore, by Jules Pretty

27 July 2018

Malcolm Doney follows the observations of a notemaker who is rooted in place

JULES PRETTY’s small treasure of a book is a homage to a 1949 volume A Sand County Almanac written by the Wisconsin forester and environmentalist, Aldo Leopold. Leopold espoused a “land ethic” based on a responsible relationship between humans and their surroundings.

Pretty is Professor of Environment and Society at the University of Essex, and in this personal, intimate record — set out month by month throughout a single year — he elaborates his own philosophy of place. Place for him is the countryside and coast of Essex, and Suffolk. And this means rootedness: what he describes as “a long attachment to the local”.

Pretty is a notemaker, and these short passages — 74 of them — read like jottings. Even his verse, which intersperses the prose, is staccato. He observes the changing seasons with an obsessional eye, recording the shifting activity of bird, plants, landscape, and shoreline.

But this isn’t some meander through a rural idyll. The East Country holds in tension the timeless and the contemporary, the universal and the particular. The roar of traffic on the A12, the slap of windscreen wipers, and the fortunes of the local football team are interwoven with moments of stillness. “Again a nightingale sang, now under the creased skies where dark clouds had been and rain still fell. There was space on the land for bleating sheep, cranky geese, creaking guinea fowl. Robin and blackbird fell silent. Dark advanced. Still the bird sang.”

I declare an interest. East Anglia is my adopted home, and the book brought many nods of recognition — and not just of familiar places and landmarks. Petty’s close acquaintance with the land also holds a mirror to the contrast between our grab-it-and-go impermanence, and nature’s dogged, cyclical continuity. This tension between for ever and today, he rightly infers, should be a creative, not a destructive, one.

The Revd Malcolm Doney is a writer, broadcaster, and Anglican priest.

The East Country: Almanac tales of valley and shore
Jules Pretty
Cornell University Press £14.50

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