"Here comes the rain again

Falling on my head like a memory … "

Ask Melissa Harrison for a rainy-day memory and she talks about the time she went to Dartmoor on her own. She was in her mid-twenties at the time, fleeing London and a relationship that had gone badly wrong to return to a place she knew and loved as a child.

She was walking on the moors when the rain came. "I was wearing a very, very cheap anorak that I'd bought from Millets for like £10 or something," she recalls now, "and it was made of the kind of plastic that the rain just runs off in sheets so it makes the rest of you wetter. And the hood wouldn't stay up. It was just dreadful. A storm blew in and I was on a completely bare hill. There was nowhere to go and I tried to shelter under a stile six inches wide.

"I remember crouching under this stile and just laughing. It was a moment of release, I think. It was finding joy in the weather. I think you can't go through life just going out in the sunshine just like you can't go through life having a lovely time every day. It's not what life's about. You need to be able to develop resilience and you need to be able to know you'll be all right."

Harrison and I are sitting in a gastropub in London on an unseasonably mild February day. It is dry outside for once. But here rain water trickles through our conversation, a musical plash-splash of words and images. Harrison has written a book called Rain. It's a short book describing four walks she took under heavy skies. It's a book about wild weather, about nature under rain fall (did you know that owls don't like hunting when it's raining because their feathers become waterlogged?), and about how showers seep through our literature and our national outlook. As Harrison points out in her introduction, you can even get apps that mimic the sound of precipitation to help you fall asleep. We dream of rain.

You'd imagine we are not alone in this obsession. If you're an Indian caught up in Monsoon season rainfall is surely just as much a fact of life. But as a nation we do seem strangely possessive of it. "I think we are," agrees Harrison. "We're a small island and we do get a lot of weather. We've got a lot of coast. We get a lot of orographic rain which is where clouds come in over high ground. That's what Manchester gets such a lot of."

Glasgow too, presumably. "Exactly. I think it's part of our national character and I think we have this sort of weird pride in it."

A few Scottish words and phrases in the glossary apart ("My favourite is Scotch mist," she says), Harrison's story is an English story. Obsessed with the writings of Nan Shepherd she had toyed with the idea of travelling to the Cairngorms for one of the walks she writes about in the book but futile trips to Kent storm-chasing made her wonder if journeys to Scotland in the hope of rain would be time or cost-productive. And anyway, that would be a new experience. The book is, in many ways, a journey into the past, nostalgia and memory. Her own included.

Harrison is 40 now. By day she is a production editor at the dance magazine Mixmag. "I started off as an indie kid and then I discovered dance music at the age of 18 and everything changed," she says. But Harrison the writer has written two novels and this year will edit a series of books of nature writing tied to the seasons. If her twenties were spent in clubs her thirties were spent outdoors. But then so was her childhood.

"I think I'm probably part of the last generation that was allowed to go out and play unsupervised all day by ourselves." She wonders if this is one of the reasons why we're currently in something of a golden age for nature writing. "I think one of the reasons – not the only reason – but it's a generation growing up and suddenly realising this has been lost and perhaps reaching the age where they're starting to have children and looking around and going 'God, what have we done?'"

What we have done is let fear rule our lives. We worry about traffic and stranger danger and our children are increasingly disconnected from nature. "In things like the Ladybird books I grew up with there were sections on agriculture and farming and they told you what was going on. 'Here's the farmer harrowing his fields.' And I've got no idea now when I go out into the countryside. I find it hard to identify what is growing. We are really distanced from it.

"That seems to me a shame. It becomes something over there and I worry sometimes about some forms of conservation that concentrate on these big set pieces like … If Dartmoor is all right and the Cairngorms are all right everything else we can desecrate. We can go to visit nature over there and have a day out and build over everything around us."

What does she think we are in danger of losing as a result? "I think that we are in a position at the moment where we have lost something like 40 per cent of Britain's wildlife in yours and my lifetime. It's gone. It's really bad and it might be beyond the point where we can get it back. But that message is difficult for people to hear. It's very frightening and I think it's something that people can turn off from. I don't think you change that through fear. I think you change it through love. And I think that love has roots in your childhood experience with nature. It's those moments you remember when you picked up a slow worm and it slithered across your hand. You never forget that feeling of it slowly and calmly, in a friendly way, investigating you. It's that moment of connection.

"I had a very outdoor childhood and then in my teenage years I left it all behind for a long time. But if you don't have that at all you don't come back to it because you have no reason to. Why would you?"

What was it that took her away from nature then? "Boys," she says smiling. It was finally getting a flat with a view that brought her back. "I was living in London and I didn't have a garden. I was in a first floor flat above a car dealership and we had a steel-lined front door and there were no street lights, nothing. And I became more and more miserable and I didn't know why. I thought it was my job, the relationship I was in. And then I moved to South London, again a first-floor flat, but I could see a tree outside my window. There was a bird's nest in it, a magpie's and I remember watching it through the seasons and I became more and more curious."

That and getting a dog plugged her back into the world around her. And eventually that would surface in her writing. In her twenties she wrote a letter to Jeanette Winterson for advice. "Oh God. I don't want to even think about what was in that letter. It was really fan-girly and it was a mixture of enormous confidence and crushing self-doubt. I had this idea that if I could only work out what it was I need to be writing about I'd definitely be really good. She was incredibly gracious and wrote back and said 'there's no point you joining a writing group or any of those things. You have to find the burning bush, you have to find what it is you need to say.' I didn't get it for a long time. I remember reading her response and thinking 'this doesn't help me at all.'

She was in her early twenties then. She spent the rest of that decade wanting to write but not knowing how. Ten years of "being far too frightened to write, wanting it a great deal and not doing it because it mattered too much." It would take her until her thirties for the burning bush to appear, "and it was this sense that when you connected with wildlife in a city it transforms your ability to survive and be happy in that city and I wanted to communicate that to other people." She has since done so in two novels (Clay and At Hawthorn Time) and now this book of rain and memory.

We can over-romanticise the weather, of course. At one point in Rain, Harrison quotes the Defoe poem A City Shower with its vision of the rain sweeping all the mess and dirt and detritus of London through its streets. It's a vision that makes you think of this winter's floods. Presumably people in Deeside, the Borders and Cumbria will not be dreaming of rain any time soon. Unless it's a nightmare.

And this is going to keep happening, Harrison points out. But maybe there is hope. "In the last few weeks there's been more talk of natural flood management in the media which is quite encouraging. I really think that you have to look at the whole river system. It's a living entity, a river."

We are part of nature whatever we might like to believe. Later that day I fly back to Scotland. It is raining when we land. It feels like coming home.

Rain by Melissa Harrison is published by Faber, priced £12.99.