Lessons of lost worlds

An old woman stands on a rock
An elderly Bulgarian woman from the Pomak community © Pavel Dudek/Alamy

“I cry because good things are dwindling,” writes Kapka Kassabova in Elixir, her journey up the Mesta valley — and back in time — in Bulgaria. “Snow, edelweiss, mursala, clean water, and I am meeting creatures shortly before they become extinct.”

Kassabova, author of the travelogues Border and To the Lake, has embarked on another trip in which the troubled past collides headfirst with an impatient present. For the third book in her “Balkan quartet”, she returns to the country of her birth over the course of several seasons to meet the relics of old-world Bulgaria before the 21st century catches up with them completely.

Among these “last unknown Europeans” — herbalists, healers and horse whisperers from Bulgaria’s Pomak community — she hopes to find her elixir, a mythical, life-giving substance that can cure any disease or unhappiness. As climate change, water pollution and human development irreversibly scar the natural world, Kassabova seeks to turn over a new leaf — or a hundred — in one of the last unspoilt valleys in Europe.

“The world of herbs is full of mysterious things,” a plant dealer named Rocky the Enchanter tells her. Of the 60,000 to 80,000 tonnes of wild plants collected in Bulgaria every year, he highlights white bryony root as an anti-inflammatory and dandelion as a laxative. Elsewhere, elecampane is used to treat chronic fatigue, false hellebore is recommended for hair loss and caltrop is vaunted as an aphrodisiac — and for undoing spells.

Book cover of Elixir

Kassabova is unfailingly patient with these suggestions. And with the healer who instructs her to place a prayer paper in a pot of water and sugar, and sip it for seven days. “I was not convinced, but I hadn’t come to be convinced,” she later writes of a particularly suspect divination ritual involving an egg. “I’d come to have an experience.”

The Bulgarian-born writer is not the only one on the trail of the lessons of a lost world. In Grounded, James Canton seeks to understand how the modern English landscape might have looked to our ancient ancestors. Such a picture, he believes, might prove akin to Kassabova’s elixir: “If we are to thrive and survive another 6,000 years as a species on this planet, then we would do well to remember something of that connection with the earth,” he writes.

Large stones placed toegether in a circle
The Whispering Knights stone circle, an ancient site in Oxfordshire, England © Tim Gainey/Alamy

This is, of course, an inexact science: the archaeological records and finds that Canton relates provide us with clues, but we cannot know for sure what the ancients would have seen. The best we can do are “time-thin truths”, as archaeologist Aubrey Burl put it — ideas and practices, such as the planting of hedgerows or the centrality of the hearth in the home, that are as valuable now as when they were first discovered. Like Kassabova, Canton’s aim is to use those truths to map out a path closer to nature and away from our wasteful ways.

Following in the footsteps of pilgrims, he starts with the obviously sacred — churches, chapels, shrines — but soon realises that to feel truly “grounded” requires looking at the soil beneath them, at the landscape that outlasts the buildings. In doing so, he assumes a role somewhere between that of an archaeologist, ghost hunter and pilgrim, and a tone that alternates between awe and whimsy.

A chapter on the decline of the Mesolithic hunter-gatherers and the emergence of farmers in the Neolithic around 6,000 years ago best synthesises Canton’s research (chiefly in local historical and archaeological records) and his observations, painting a convincing picture of the English landscape and the people who lived in it. But while the past is present in Canton’s writing, the future, alluded to obliquely in bookends, remains disappointingly evasive. He never quite grapples with the concrete lessons we can learn from the ancients, or how they will help us to live sustainably now. “One of the wonders of musing on the remote past is that little can be said definitively,” admits Canton. True though this may be, it leaves rather a heavy burden for the writer to shoulder.

Book cover of Grounded

There are clumsy turns of phrase too: of curlews, he notes “the elliptical perfection of their curved bills”; at a barrow, “the sun splinters spectacular shards of light from behind cloud in the west”; elsewhere, “spring has certainly sprung”. The author is director of “wild writing” at Essex University, so it is a shame that the writing in Grounded is not, well, wilder.

Kassabova’s guides are as wild as they come, however, and she immerses herself in their wisdom, no matter how improbable it appears. Emin, a horse breeder, lives an unimaginably lonely five months of the year in the forest with his animals. At a geological anomaly called The Stone of the Black Snake, meanwhile, pilgrims are led by old women through a sacred rock formation in the hope of curing ailments that modern medicine cannot reach, while their futures are read in the melting of a lead bullet.

Her ability to bring out the best in her subjects is born of a genuine horror at the unsustainability of the ways we live and the toll they are taking on places such as the Mesta valley. But Elixir is not a lecture (nor indeed is Grounded). Like the forests and fells it inhabits, it is by turns dark and mysterious and beautiful. Ecologically minded writing can often tell too much and show too little, but Kassabova sensibly lets the landscape and locals do the talking.

One of them, an elderly woman she meets in an orchard, makes perhaps the most convincing case for a difficult, albeit grounded, life — more or less as Candide once concluded. “If we don’t work, all we have left is death and the telly,” she remarks. “And it’s a fine day for weeding.”

Elixir: In the Valley at the End of Time by Kapka Kassabova, Jonathan Cape £20, 400 pages

Grounded: A Journey into the Landscapes of Our Ancestors by James Canton, Canongate £18.99, 272 pages

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