Land Lines Conference: Nature Writing’s Future Pasts – Report on Proceedings

On the 28th February and the 1st March 2019, the Land Lines AHRC Project welcomed delegates to the School of English at the University of Leeds for the conference Nature Writing’s Future Pasts. Promising to be an exciting two days of discussion, creative interventions and theoretical debates, the conference was fully booked from early on in the organisational stages, and the Land Lines team had the privilege of hosting delegates from Canada, the USA, and Europe as well as a diverse range of panellists from across the UK. The conference also incorporated events that diverged from a conventional structure, which involved integrating creative practitioners into a roundtable panel as the focal event, hosting a live performance of a new play production about the life of Phyllis Kelway, and even a lunchtime nature walk across the Leeds campus (on which a peregrine falcon was spotted!).

Writer Patrick Barkham giving his keynote talk

Professor Graham Huggan, PI of the Land Lines Project, welcomed delegates to a productive and thoughtful two days of discussion, emphasising the aim of the conference to react against ideas of nature writing as a compensatory form, and inviting participants to consider how nature writing has always engaged with temporality and the struggles of the future. Following some opening comments by Professor Frank Finlay (Executive Dean of the Faculty of Arts, Humanities and Cultures), who commended the Land Lines Project for its wide-reaching impact across the public and academic spheres, the conference keynote lecture from author and journalist Patrick Barkham commenced.

Ranging across key issues and debates surrounding the genre of nature writing from the perspective of his own experience as an author within the discipline, Barkham surveyed the current burgeoning of British nature writing, problematising the often “feel-good” green covers and their aesthetic appeal on a bookshelf. Offering a possible definition of British nature writing, however, Barkham identified a transition from the more traditional tropes of the genre – for example, writing about other species – to the more contemporary trends of “writing about our relationships with other species”. Barkham noted, critically, that the new British nature writing questions objectivity, and the “grand authority” of the author. Identifying three key characteristics of the new nature writing – authenticity, narrative and originality – Barkham examined the significance of the author’s own involvement in their story in contemporary nature writing, its tangible emotional quality, but also the possibility of superfluity and the lack of rigorous editing within the genre. Discussing his own book, Islander, and the trajectory of his new book Wild Child, Barkham noted his shift in focus from research and pedagogy latent within his texts, towards a more implicit conveying of information, backgrounded by the focus of children and nature. Concluding by returning to his earlier remark on the focus of new nature writing, Barkham stated that he is “excited for the future that nature has in writing […] A hopeful sign is other species impinging upon our creative works”. He ended by posing a question: whether this shift will aid nonhuman species in taking up more power in the real world.

The first panel of the conference, titled ‘Talking animals, little grey men, and post-war pastoral returns: 20th century imaginaries’, chaired by Land Lines research team member Christina Alt, began with two papers on the life and work of children’s nature book writer Phyllis Kelway: Denise Shemuel described Kelway’s early international success and her lyrical – but unsentimental – style of writing, and Jenny Bavidge noted that Kelway’s work defies categorisation, and dealt with violence and care in equal measure. Ian Tattum argued that BB’s The Little Grey Men, published in 1942, registers anxiety about humanity’s impact on the environment and shows the gnomes of the title as modelling a way of treading lightly on the earth. Kelly Sultzbach spoke about attitudes to the British countryside in soldiers returning from WW1 and how the forms of pastoral and nostalgia emerging at that time might be read both critically and compassionately.

Denise Shemuel on the life of Phyllis Kelway

Panel 2, chaired by Jos Smith, titled ‘Sounding the Archipelago’, brought together papers based on work (including musical compositions, in the case of two of the presentations) emanating from the shorelines and islands of the British and Irish archipelago. Joseph Browning considered the way in which contemporary music increasingly engages with nature and, indeed, with nature writing itself, in works that blur the distinction between the literary and the musical, the natural and the cultural. Aly Stoneman made a case for a distinctive ‘poetics of coastal change’, thinking about how poetry is responding to phenomena such as coastal erosion. Nessa Cronin spoke about the cartographer and writer Tim Robinson, whose work on landscapes in the Aran islands and Connemara is now housed in an archive at NUI Galway. She explained how archived ‘fragments’ might stimulate new ‘creative cartographies’ in a range of disciplines. Using the example of his own need for heightened listening during his kayak journey along the Atlantic seaboard of Britain and Ireland, David Gange spoke about the oceanic music of Peter Maxwell Davies and Errollyn Wallen, and how this might be seen as speaking to postcolonial and posthuman perspectives, and might inform urgent attention to ‘real, threatened seas’.

Panel 2A, chaired by Land Lines team member David Higgins, and titled ‘The pasts of the future: 18th and 19th century nature writing’, featured papers by Ian Hunt, Anna Burton, and Jim Scown. Ian Hunt suggested that Charlotte Smith has not received as much attention as a poet as she merits, and looked at the way in which her poetic works, as well as her educational writings, were underpinned by a wealth of scientific and observational knowledge about the natural world. Anna Burton proposed a ‘silvicultural tradition’ of poetry which included her subject William Gilpin. According to Anna, Gilpin’s picturesque writings helped to shape perceptions about the lives of trees both in his own time and to the present day. Jim Scown gave a reading of Charlotte Brontë’s Jane Eyre in which he demonstrated that the novel offers a way of living with nature that moves beyond early 19th century botany, undermines the trope of women as ‘hothouse’ flowers, and speaks to ideas of human-nature relationships ‘grounded in love and care’.

During the lunch break on Thursday 28th we were privileged to be treated to a performance of Denise Shemuel’s play ‘Miss Kelway’s World’. Performed by Sarah Ingram as Phyllis Kelway’s companion Mary Sykes, and Amelia Leventhorpe as Kelway herself, the play was funny and poignant and above all, with its use of Kelway’s own words, brought out what a brilliant nature writer she was and how her works deserve to be rediscovered and read widely in our own time.

Actors Sarah Ingram and Amelia Leventhorpe performing ‘Miss Kelway’s World’

Panel 3, chaired by keynote speaker Richard Kerridge, formed a creative roundtable at the heart of the conference, with contributions from six creative writers and artists. Stuart Mugridge began the panel with an atmospheric polyvocal performance based on the notion of an embodied ‘becoming with’, rather than writing about, nature. Jessica Wortley also questioned concepts of nature, playfully using Oscar Wilde’s definition that it is ‘a place where birds fly around uncooked’ to open up a space for alternative perspectives. Poet and creative practitioner JR Carpenter presented her work ‘This is a Picture of the Wind: A Weather Poem for Phones’, which articulated the changing of weather, storms and seasons through a digital online work, and encouraged readers to think of ‘wind and clouds as a species’. Flora Parrott took attendees on a journey through underwater caves in Germany, examining the discovery of a new species of ‘invisible’ cave-dwelling fish, and considering the creative and epistemological potential of this discovery and cave diving as a practice for producing knowledge. Discussing some recent women’s fiction concerning the environment, Ali Cargill presented her thoughts on how the environment is integrated in contemporary writing, and poet Steve Ely offered a reading and discussion of his recent pamphlet ‘Zi-Zi Taah Taah Taah: The Song of the Willow Tit’, and how the bird is exposed and threatened by suburban and urban development, linking this to social deprivation in ex-mining communities.

Leeds Library
Richard Kerridge, Miriam Darlington, Patrick Barkham and Richard Smyth at the Leeds Library public reading event (Photo: JR Carpenter)

In the evening, delegates joined the three keynote speakers – Miriam Darlington, Patrick Barkham and Richard Kerridge, chaired by writer Richard Smyth – along with the Land Lines team and members of the public for an event at the historic Leeds Library, including book readings, signings and discussion. Following a reading of an excerpt from his nonfiction book In Cold Blood, a memoir which explores the life of reptiles and amphibians through his own experiences growing up in Britain, Richard Kerridge noted that the new nature writing “does not just attempt to bridge the gap between nature and culture, but is interested in memoir and the personal”. Discussing her books Otter Country and Owl Sense, Miriam Darlington referenced the tensions in intertwining representations of nature with her own personal experiences, attesting that Owl Sense “is not a “nature cure”, but it would have been dishonest not to fold my home life into my writing”. Patrick Barkham, reading a comic extract from his book Islander, also referred to how he incorporates his own history, context and experiences into his own work. In a Q&A session, discussion ranged across public access to wild spaces in the UK, to ideas on gender and safety in the outdoors and the importance of inspiring children to engage with nature through education. Questions were also raised over the politics of the new “boom” in nature writing, and whether it may represent a form of nostalgia and renewed desire for nativism, particularly in the current political climate.

Credit Nic Wilson
Fossils on the stone of the Laidlaw Library, taken on the nature walk (Photo: Nic Wilson)

The first two panels of the second and final day of the conference were Panel 4, ‘Writing birds, shooting birds, mourning birds’, chaired by Lucy Rowland, and Panel 4A, ‘Self and world: new operators for new precarities’, chaired by Jenny Bavidge. On the panel on birds, talks ranged from representations of the nightingale in nature writing (Bethan Roberts), the nature writing of Henry Baker Tristram on the birds (and shooting of them) in Palestine (Jasmine Donahaye), lessons on mental health and nature from the poet Edward Thomas (Elizabeth Black) and the notion of elegy and mourning birds in Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring (Hetty Saunders). Lively discussion linked the symbolism of birds within nature writing to the new focus of considering the dynamics of human relationships with nonhuman species in more contemporary work.

In Panel 4A Jack Belloli proposed an alternative genealogy for late modernist nature writing, to include the prose works of R.F.Langley, J.H. Prynne and Peter Larkin as well as their poetry, and suggested that Langley’s writing practice taken as a whole both ‘moves between and avoids the nature-culture binary’. Lauren Maltas explored the tension in nature writing between self-consciousness and more objective approaches, finding that moments of illumination arise from that tension. Alexander J. B. Hampton also considered the relationship between self and world in new nature writing, outlining the paradox that the success of this writing depends upon its ability to overcome an anthropocentric construction of nature while at the same time speaking from the viewpoint of an individual encountering elements of the natural world’s ‘resistant particularity’. Maria Sledmere, through her focus on Derek Jarman’s Modern Nature, considered the potential of queer ecological sensibilities and the journal form to express ‘fresh potentials for pleasure, elegy, work and care within a precarious world’.

The penultimate panel of the conference, Panel 5, was chaired by Jeremy Davies, a lecturer in the Leeds School of English, and considered the temporalities of nature writing, ranging from discussions of the Anthropocene and deep time in nature writing (Amy Player and Cord-Christian Casper), to the medium of nature writing across human history, ranging from medieval texts such as Gawain and the Green Knight, to Darwin (Helen List). Considering texts such as Kathleen Jamie’s Findings and Sightlines, as well as Nan Shepherd’s The Living Mountain, panellists made connections between nature writing’s pasts and possible futures, and the ensuing discussion brought up notions of the superficial divisions between natural and human history (e.g. Dipesh Chakrabarty’s ‘Four Theses’) and the negotiation of different temporal ontologies within nature writing.

At lunchtime on the Friday the panellists were given the opportunity to go on a nature walk with celebrated poet of nature and University of Leeds professor, John Whale. The solitary wild rabbit that lives in undergrowth just outside the School of English sadly didn’t make an appearance, but there were other creatures on hand. Although the walk was within the University campus area in a busy part of Leeds, the walkers were rewarded by sightings of a Peregrine falcon, Long-tailed tits, and Great tits, as well as having an encounter with deep time in the fossils in the Portland stone of the Laidlaw Library.

Bethan Roberts Peregrine 2
A distant Peregrine (Photo: Bethan Roberts)

The final keynote event was a dialogue between Miriam Darlington and Richard Kerridge, chaired by Land Lines team member Pippa Marland. Miriam and Richard talked about the way in which their dual role as both writers and teachers of creative writing informs their work, and has, especially in terms of collaborative ‘workshopping’ practices on their creative writing courses, benefitted their own writing. A question posed by Richard drew attention to the way in which contemporary nature writing often sets up nature writing classics as ‘antagonists’, and he asked if this is ‘a response to the genre’s need to distinguish itself precisely from certain ideological associations in its past, without simply and easily washing its hands of its past’. Miriam replied that her dialogue with Henry Williamson’s Tarka the Otter in her own book Otter Country was in part a way of clearing space for herself to write on this subject – a need arising primarily from gender politics and the fact that at the time she was writing this book female nature writers were the exception in a predominantly male field. Thinking of other omissions and exclusions, Richard expressed his interest in reading nature writing translated from other languages and cultures, as a means of reaching a greater understanding of global environmental problems.

Much of the discussion in the conference as a whole revolved around the difficulty of moving beyond a single narrative perspective in order to include debate and other voices, including those of the natural world itself. Richard read a new piece of his writing, ‘The Red Kite’, in which he adopts a fictional form to reflect multiple viewpoints. Both Richard and Miriam agreed with Patrick Barkham’s point in his opening keynote talk, that humour is a valuable but relatively rare component of nature writing. Miriam read a passage from Owl Sense in which she describes her embarrassment at disturbing a colony of roosting owls in the Serbian town of Kikanda with a click of her camera. For both authors, there is much to be said for writing with humility and honesty, with a sense of irony and of their own fallibility – elements that usefully undercut the assumption of authority with which much nature writing is associated.

The conference was drawn to a close by Panel 5, chaired by Land Lines PI Graham Huggan. Tim Hannigan argued that the new nature writing, as identified in Jason Cowley’s influential introduction to the 2008 Granta volume devoted to that genre, is really travel writing dressed in new clothes. He identifies a strand of ‘writing back’ by ‘travelees’ i.e. the people who live and work in the landscapes visited by the nature/travel writers. Jos Smith, in the final paper of the conference, asked us to consider what the nature writing of 2080 might look like. Jos argued that it is possible for nature writing to be ‘speculative’, that it might be directed towards ‘taking imaginative leaps, resisting convention and risking absurdity’ in order to explore alternative futures, and even to help shape the reality of that future.

The Land Lines team would like to extend our huge thanks to everyone who attended the conference. It surpassed all our expectations, generating wonderful discussions, inspirational insights, and leaving us with the sense of a growing intellectual community devoted to nature and to exploring ways of responding to our relationship with it.

red kite illustration
‘Red Kite’ – Illustration by Katie Marland




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