Nature writing, nowadays, has the readership it deserves. New books by Robert Macfarlane and John Lewis-Stempel are publishing-industry events; every non-fiction imprint has its stable of hillwalkers, birdwatchers, sheep-farmers and poets of place; the Waterstones ‘Nature’ table groans under the weight of finely-wrought paperbacks with titles like ‘Slug Country’ or ‘Stoatlands’ or ‘Notes From Cackwhittle Fen’. This is a healthy and encouraging thing. The living world around us – what Mark Cocker calls ‘the more-than-human parts of nature’ – should have our attention. It needs it, now more than ever.
I wonder, though, whether it has the conversation it deserves – whether we’ve succeeded in nurturing a real dialogue about nature writing: what it is, what it’s for, what works, what doesn’t. That’s why, when we started talking about putting on a programme of nature-writing events at the Leeds Library earlier this year, I was keen to do something more than just celebrate writing on nature; I wanted to do an event that engaged with it, explored it, challenged it.
We ended up selling out the venue. There really is an appetite for talking about nature writing.
I was delighted by the calibre of the writers and thinkers who came on board. We put together a four-person expert panel for our ‘WildLines’ Q&A session: Maren Meinhardt, who edits nature and science reviews at the Times Literary Supplement and has written a wonderful biography of the Enlightenment polymath Alexander Von Humboldt; Professor Kate Oakley of the University of Leeds, who has been an astute critic of trends in modern nature-writing; Steve Rutt, author of the forthcoming book The Seabirds; and Rebecca Machin, Curator of Natural Science at Leeds Museum Discovery Centre.
One thing I knew they all had in common – apart from their eloquence and expertise – was that they had strong opinions about nature writing. Because really, there’s an awful lot to have strong opinions about.
Is the genre too white, too straight, too middle-class? Is it too dominated by writing in the ‘lyrical’ mode, by ableist ‘summitism’, by self-absorbed amateurs? Should it be more (or less) concerned with environmental destruction, or with social issues? How personal should it be? How scientific should it be? Do books about captive creatures count as ‘nature writing’? Who ‘qualifies’ to write about nature?
These kinds of questions (important ones, I think) have gained some traction over the last few years but I’m still concerned that a certain coziness – a muffling weight of consensus, at least in public – prevails in the sector.
Perhaps there’s a feeling that, because the purpose of nature writing is to get people interested in, or engaged by, or excited about the natural world, nature writers should be united in common cause: any writing that popularises nature is to be supported, applauded and warmly blurbed on book-jackets. In-fighting weakens the movement.
This follows, I suppose, from placing emphasis on the ‘nature’ element of ‘nature writing’. It makes sense, from that perspective: if everyone’s working towards the same goal, why compromise the mission by being snide about someone else’s book on birds (or badgers, or bees, or whatever it might be)?
As someone who tends to think about nature writing with the ‘writing’ bit uppermost, I don’t always find that easy to get along with. I’m used to arguing about books, and to seeing diversity of opinion as a strength (you would wait a long time for anything resembling a cozy consensus to come along in most literary fields); I’m not sure anyone should get a free pass from critics or readers because they happen to be writing about nature.
We got into all this and more in our WildLines Q&A. A few things we learned:
(1) A 50p fine for every mention of JA Baker or The Peregrine would have funded our event ten times over.
(2) No-one seems sure where the next generation of nature-lovers will come from. One woman, a teacher, told us that one of her pupils didn’t know what a robin was. Calls for the return of the classroom ‘nature table’ might be more than 20th-century nostalgia.
(3) Birdwatchers like to talk. And they like to read, too. The Great Divide between fancy-dan prose stylists and muddy-booted twitchers might not be as real as we sometimes imagine.
(4) Our expert panel has excellent taste. Asked to name their favourite nature books, they came up with Aldo Leopold’s A Sand County Almanac, Redmond O’Hanlon’s Congo Journey, John Muir’s Wilderness Essays, Kathleen Jamie’s Findings, and Richard Mabey’s Nature Cure. And, inevitably, The Peregrine. The debate moderator (me) suggested David George Haskell’s The Songs Of Trees.
(5) Nature writing really is too white, too male, and too middle-class.
(6) There is so much to talk about. We could have gone on for days, given an endless supply of finger-food and boxed wine.
More than anything, what we learned is that nature writing isn’t just a thriving field of literature in its own right, though it’s certainly that; nature writing is also a window – no, a doorway – on to practically every other aspect of our world: society, history, environment, economy, art, philosophy, science, and a million different combinations thereof. Whatever ‘nature writing’ means.
by Richard Smyth
All Photography by Izzy Brittle