Book Review - 'Common Ground'

Few books can truly capture how the natural world can provide a sanctuary fro the human spirit as well as being a place which can illuminate the symmetrical intricacies which the natural world shares with our day to day lives. Rob Cowen’s 2015 award-winning book ‘Common Ground’ is an opine to the forgotten places that lay in-between the busy A-roads and hedgerows, the swathes of land that nestle just beyond the ring roads and concrete rises. Before I had picked up ‘Common Ground’, my knowledge of nature writing went as far as John Lewis-Stempel and Alfred Wainwright; but hidden within the pages of Cowen’s second book, and very soon to be second of three, I found my own patch of common ground which Cowen himself preaches about in his sermon to all things wild and woolly. ‘Common Ground’ is a book with many separate layers, separated only with chapter breaks which I found were the equivalent of climbing your own personal Fenn. Each chapter has its ideas and motivations, eagerly pulling you into a world, you know so little about, and at the end of each chapter you are rewarded with another magnificent panorama, a view which both takes your breath away and gives you the energy to go straight on up the next mountainside.


The book is broken up into several different perspectives; that of Cowen himself, people that have populated the landscape from the past as well as the present, and the view of animals that live alongside Cowen. Following Cowen as he migrates back from the metropolis he’s found himself into his childhood home, he and his wife start nesting with a baby on the way. Here begin the parallels with Cowen and the nature that he immerses himself in. Migrating back to the place he was born to bring a child into the world just as the birds he notes in his trusty notebook do every year. Throughout the book, Cowen puts forward links that not only show that no matter how much technology, work and convenience we put between ourselves and the natural world, but we also cannot escape our tendencies to act towards the most base of instincts.


The book is one that also reflects the changing of seasons, as with the seasons comes the growth, birth, reclusion and death of living things, all parts of life which Cowen finds reflected in his own existence in his new home in the North of England. The book takes us with Cowen as he migrates back to his childhood home, to the patch of common ground from which the book gains its title. This patch of woodland is depicted as somewhat hallowed ground; Cowen puts it forward as an example of what we all may have lost in the drive for the contemporary and the modern. Cowen dives into the wild boots first, following deer and hare, fungi and fauna, animals and humans alike. Cowen’s passion for the unknown and the untamed nooks of wildlife which resides in his neighbouring woodland is infectious, upon finishing the book the desire to throw on a waterproof and some oversized wellies is all too real. Through the many pairs of eyes that Cowen casts his beautiful prose, he blends fiction with his own experience, and in doing so, he has created a world in which you feel a member of the ecosphere. In this moment of climate awareness and activism, this book provides all the more reason to go out and defend not only our local patches of woodland, grassland and coastline but the environment as a whole. Whole branches of the local biosphere are seen retreating into the tall grasses of history, never to be seen again.

‘Common Ground’ is not only a work of expert nature writing, but a biography of environment which is all too quickly disappearing, in writing this book Cowen outlines the need to go out and engage with the world around us, echoing the voices of Attenborough in his most recent documentary series ‘Planet Earth 2’ and the activism of young people across our planet like Greta Thunberg. A must-read, and a much-needed book when it was written and even more so now.