It was after seeing Rob Cowen speak at the WildLines nature writing festival in Leeds that I was intrigued enough to pick up this book to find out more.
Common Ground is an interesting scrapbook of various narratives and observations garnered over a nine-month obsession with the nearby ‘edgeland’ – the common ground of the title – that borders Cowen’s home in Bilton, Harrogate, North Yorkshire.
The northern flavour was partly the reason why I’d picked up the title, and it was fascinating to see such a small setting provide the focus for the entire book. Even travelling weekly to Harrogate to visit grandparents in my childhood, the small corner of the north depicted here has been largely unknown to me.
Cowen mixes local history with zoology, environmental politics, character-driven half-fictions, folklore and plenty else besides. This patchwork narrative mingles allegorically with the burgeoning pregnancy of his wife and the paternal metamorphosis taking place within himself.
Cowen possesses a skilful turn of phrase that evokes the childlike wonder he takes with him during his forays into the edgeland. I really enjoyed reading the section on swifts especially, and I learned a few things about the old Forest of Knaresborough that I hadn’t known before. The interwoven – if sometimes uneven – structure helps maintain interest throughout.
Not a straight-up piece of nature writing by any means, Common Ground is a compelling record of one man’s hyper-local obsession and a sustained reflection on the inter-relatedness of things.