Cowen, R (2015) Common Ground Hutchinson, London ISBN978 0 091 95455 0
‘Sensitive, thoughtful and poetic. Rob Cowen rakes over a scrap of land with forensic care, leading us into a whole new way of looking at the world.’ Michael Palin
The Random House publisher’s synopsis for ‘Common Ground’ states:
“After moving from London to a new home in Yorkshire, Rob Cowen finds himself on unfamiliar territory, disoriented, hemmed in by winter and yearning for the nearest open space. So one night, he sets out to find it – a pylon-slung edge-land, a tangle of wood, meadow, field and river on the outskirts of town. Despite being in the shadow of thousands of houses, it feels unclaimed, forgotten, caught between worlds, and all the more magical for it.”
Obsessively revisiting this forgotten non-place Cowen ventures deeper into its many layers and lives, documenting its changes through time and season and unearthing histories that profoundly resonate and intertwine with transformative events happening in his own life.
‘Common Ground’ is a wonderful achievement, a lyrical, Yorkshire dreamtime that blurs the boundaries of memoir, natural history and novel. It’s a unique portrait of the edgeland and a remarkable evocation of how, over the course of a year, Cowen came to unlock something of its magic.
“[Rob Cowen] has found for himself a space where others saw nothing but a hinterland, a place of inconsequence defined by pylons, litter, dog shit. Somewhere usually viewed at speed from passing trains or cars. Here in this liminal space on the edge of Harrogate, to where he and his wife had relocated from London, Cowen discovered a new realm in which to explore worlds both internal and external – and it is very much a realm, one given new life through heightened, lucid prose that drips with poetry, where the River Nidd “splits over a the weir like Brylcreem-parted black hair”. Ours is a world, he explains, “growing yet shrinking, connected yet isolated, all-knowing but without knowledge…all is speed and surface…..digging down deeper into an overlooked patch of ground, one that (in a global sense, at least) few people will ever know about and even fewer visit, felt like the antithesis to all of this.”
Fascinatingly, Cowen often writes as if from the subconscious, when trailing a fox rather than reporting his sightings, he becomes the fox, dragging the reader down every railway siding, experiencing every scent on the breeze and stolen moment of sleep. It’s a remarkable piece of empathetic nature writing.
Ben Myers goes on to say:
What makes this book special is the author’s total immersion in his subject. Reading this you expect him to be part-human and part….what? Bramble? Owl pellet? […] Cowen exists one step removed from the current nature writing world. He does not undertake exploratory weekend sorties and be back by his desk for Monday morning; we are with him as he sees his first baby scan, we are breathing the same sub-zero winter air. […] The space he becomes infatuated with only confirms what many of us already suspect: mankind’s long-term spiritual well-being may yet depend upon our relationship with such close environments – and when that environment is all glass and concrete, volume and detritus, so too our souls will be hardened and transparent, noisy and cluttered.
Writing in The Yorkshire Post, Rob Cowen explains:
[…] That night heralded what would become a total absorption into the strange, magical, transitory place I’d found, and an obsessive investigation of the extraordinary layers and lives – human and animal – that I discovered there. I began to walk through it at different times of day and night and from different directions. […]
There is a depth that comes from revisiting a place relentlessly and over time I began to perceive the stories of everything that stepped, slid and swooped over my patch of common ground, to see through an increasing array of eyes and know myriad existences. And at the same time, the land, its layers and inhabitants seemed to be ever more bound up with events happening in my own life. So I started keeping reams of field notes to try to record these apparent manifestations and to make sense of things. […]
As the months passed I built up a multi-perspective portrait of this seemingly forgotten space by digging deep through its layers.
At its heart, this is a book about place and change, and about finding that sense of belonging in time, both at a local and global level. Fastidious and obsessive, poetic and mystical ‘Common Ground’, with its numerous interchanging narratives, is full of voices and visions and reassert a vital truth – that nature isn’t just some remote mountain or protected park – it is all around us. It is in us. It is us, and we are it.
Ben Myers again:
He watches, listens and explores. He’s an outlier, a Northern voice, a set of eyes on the soil, and Common Ground is his outstanding addition to – and expansion of – the canon.