The rise and popularity of British Nature Writing: an interview with Pippa Marland by Gunhild Riske

The Danish journalist and anthropologist Gunhild Riske interviewed Pippa as part of her research for a forthcoming article on British nature writing for the Danish newspaper Jyllands-Posten. We are delighted to post the full text of the interview on the Land Lines website today, illustrated with photos by Gunhild, Dan Reid, and artwork by Katie Marland.

Luke Jerram’s ‘Gaia’, Wills Memorial Building, Bristol, 18th August 2019, photo by Dan Reid.

GR: Nature writing is obviously a huge topic. In my forthcoming article I’m trying to explain in broad strokes the phenomenon, map the many subgenres of nature writing and explore the societal forces behind it. Why is it so popular now – and who are the readers? Gender and diversity are also interesting. 

PM: Nature writing is certainly burgeoning in the UK right now – new titles are being published all the time, and they are often relatively high-profile, sometimes featuring in the bestseller lists, for example, Robert Macfarlane’s Underland and Isabella Tree’s Wilding: The Return of Nature to a British Farm.

As you say, it’s a huge topic and there are many subgenres that come under the broad umbrella of nature writing: there are books that lean more towards memoir than natural history, like Helen MacDonald’s H is for Hawk and Amy Liptrot’s The Outrun, and often focus on the healing power of the natural world – the Nature Cure, as Richard Mabey describes it in his quietly ground-breaking 2005 work; there are books focused on the writer’s passion for particular flora and fauna, for example, Miriam Darlington’s Otter Country and Owl Sense, Dave Goulson’s A Sting in the Tale, and Patrick Barkham’s The Butterfly Isles; books based on specific (and sometimes very small-scale) places, for example, John Lewis Stempel’s The Wood: The Life and Times of Cockshutt Wood, which focuses on three and a half acres of woodland in the English county of Herefordshire, and Roger Deakin’s Notes from Walnut Tree Farm; books that narrate practical engagements with the natural world, often related to agriculture, for example James Rebanks’ The Shepherd’s Life: A Tale of the Lake District and Isabella Tree’s Wilding; books that have a particular environmentalist or polemic angle, for example, George Monbiot’s Feral and Mark Cocker’s Our Place: Can We Save Britain’s Wildlife Before It Is Too Late; and books that bring together personal memoir with a threnody for lost species, as in Michael McCarthy’s The Moth Snowstorm. Of course, there are also nature books that function as practical guides to particular elements of the natural world and wouldn’t be considered ‘literary’ in the same way as the aforementioned titles, but nevertheless play an important role in the culture of nature. As a recent example, Philip Street’s Shell Life on the Seashore, first published in 1961, has just been reissued in a new edition.

Notwithstanding the wealth of different forms associated with the genre, there are also signs that authors are moving between these forms while at the same time incorporating new elements, pushing at the limits of prose nature writing per se. In Rob Cowen’s Common Ground you find fictional passages and a range of different characters rubbing shoulders with more traditional descriptive and autobiographical writing. One of the most exciting contemporary voices in British nature writing is perhaps also one of the most overlooked (as yet): Philip Hoare’s books, especially Leviathan; The Sea Inside; and RISINGTIDEFALLINGSTAR, deal predominantly with aquatic rather than terrestrial nature, and blend natural and eclectic cultural observations so seamlessly that the writing resists easy classification, and yet they have a huge amount to say about the natural world and our relationship with it.

Photo by Gunhild Riske

In terms of gender, things have changed significantly in the last decade or so, with many new female nature writers now being published and achieving major acclaim, building on the success of long-standing, established authors such as Kathleen Jamie. In relation to diversity, the genre has for a long time been almost exclusively white – at least in terms of the material that actually finds its way to publication – but this too is now gradually beginning to change: we’ve seen the founding this year of The Willowherb Review, edited by Jessica J. Lee, which is dedicated to celebrating and bolstering nature writing by emerging and established writers of colour, and we’ve also witnessed the launch of the Nan Shepherd Prize – a new literary prize for underrepresented voices in nature . The Forestry Commission recently inaugurated a writers’ residency in forests for similarly underrepresented voices. Writers of colour such as Jini Reddy, Anita Roy, and Elizabeth Jane Burnett are creating exciting new work and David Lindo, a.k.a. the ‘Urban Birder’ is a highly successful ornithologist, author and media personality.

There are also younger writers exploding onto the scene: Abi Andrews’ audacious The Word for Woman is Wilderness was published last year, and Diary of a Young Naturalist by fifteen year-old Northern Irish naturalist Dara McAnulty will be published by Little Toller in 2020. Dara’s book also joins a growing list of titles by neurodiverse writers. Like British media star and nature writer Chris Packham – and of course the globally-celebrated environmental activist Greta Thunberg – Dara identifies as being on the autism/Asperger’s spectrum.

The question of why nature writing is so popular in the UK now is a complex one. Is it because there’s so little nature left? After all, the UK is one of the most nature-depleted countries in the world. Is the writing fulfilling a nostalgic or elegiac function? I certainly think these elements play into its popularity, especially when much of the readership is probably urban and as a result potentially lacks direct access to rural nature. Having said this, and as you suggest in your question below, the nature being celebrated is increasingly of the kind that can be found on our doorsteps, in urban or suburban environments. Rob Cowen’s book falls into this category, as does Edgelands: Journeys into England’s True Wilderness by Paul Farley and Michael Symonds Roberts, which, as the name implies, explores the hinterlands of cities and towns.

I’d like to believe that the current interest in nature writing is more than just a reflection of commodified nature finding a niche in consumer culture, or a nostalgic fad that mourns the loss of landscapes and wildlife while turning its back on the nature that still remains. The UK has been part of a global movement towards environmentalism in recent months, participating in a great upsurge in support for the natural world. Even if not all the readers of nature writing are activists, I do feel that there is a certain ‘environmentally-woke’ zeitgeist emerging, in the sense that people are beginning to notice and cherish nature in a significant way, and this ‘noticing’ may ultimately translate into political and environmental action.

Photo by Gunhild Riske

GR: I wonder which nature writing captures this “everywoman” approach outside of beautiful specialist nature writing?

One of the nature writers I most admire on the British scene is the Scottish writer Kathleen Jamie (Findings; Sightlines). She never sets out to portray herself as an expert on any aspect of nature, but in her brilliant use of the essay form she brings an inquisitive and profoundly philosophical eye to the natural world and its intersections with human activity. She shows that you don’t need to travel to far-flung places or remote wildernesses to experience nature (or to create outstandingly good nature writing, for that matter); it’s always there, just at the edges of our vision as we go about our daily tasks. She writes, ‘between the laundry and fetching the kids from school, that’s how birds enter my life’. Katharine Norbury’s The Fish Ladder is another good example of this. Following a miscarriage, Norbury decides to go on a quest, to walk from the sea to the source of a river. At the same time she is engaged in trying to find her birth mother (she was adopted as a baby). She combines these narratives with exquisite reflections on the nature she encounters along the way.

There’s a lot of grass-roots knowledge about natural history to be found among members of the general public, and also a lot of people who aren’t experts but simply enjoy and value the nature that surrounds them. The final public engagement event of the initial Land Lines project was a crowd-sourced spring nature diary, created online on March 20th this year. The response was amazing! Abi Andrews is currently editing an e-book for us of some of the submissions which will be released in the Autumn. There’s an abundance of evidence of a great and heartfelt passion for the natural world. You can see the entries here.

GR: Being involved in the Land Lines project and modern British nature writing must give some very interesting perspectives. 

PM: The Land Lines book, co-written by Graham Huggan and David Higgins (University of Leeds), Christina Alt (University of St Andrews) and Will Abberley (Sussex University), forthcoming from Cambridge University Press, traces the history of the British nature writing genre through a series of in-depth discussions of the work of selected writers, from Gilbert White’s The Natural History of Selborne (1789) to the present day, and encompassing the Romantic, Victorian, Modernist and contemporary literary eras. Their research shows that it took a long time for ‘writing about nature’ to coalesce into ‘nature writing’ as an identifiable form (if indeed it ever has fully coalesced, given the proliferation of subgenres noted above) and that the genre has been characterised since its inception by tensions and contradictions. To the present day there are heated debates on what the ideal balance of science and autobiography in nature writing might be, and on whether ‘fine’, literary writing detracts from an engagement with ‘real’ nature, rendering the literature more an escapist form than a force to motivate environmentalist behaviour. From a broader perspective, Graham Huggan sees the genre as ‘emerging under the sign of a triple crisis: the crisis of the environment; the crisis of representation; and the crisis of modernity itself’. In other words, he argues that nature writing is, and always has been, a more complex and troubled form than has often been assumed, haunted (to varying degrees in different eras) by the awareness of anthropogenic environmental impact, by the difficulty of capturing nature in language, and by doubts about the assumed ‘progress’ of the human species. This darker dimension is perhaps most clearly evident in contemporary nature writing, which, of course, as you also mention, operates within the terrifying context of the Anthropocene.

I think the Land Lines book will prove to be an important intervention into our understanding of the genre. For example, David Higgins’s opening chapter sheds new light on the complex interplay between autobiography and natural history in British Romantic nature writing, and highlights the central importance of figures such as Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Charlotte Smith, and John Clare. In this he reveals the genre’s European, female and labouring class roots in a way that complicates later understandings of the form as the sole preserve of the privileged, often specifically English, male.

My own role in the project has, along with assisting the research, been largely oriented towards public engagement, and my experiences in this area have convinced me more than anything else that there is a widespread and growing love of nature among the British public and an appetite to think with some urgency about our relationship with landscape and wildlife, and the damage to the natural world in which we are all implicated.

Photo by Gunhild Riske

GR: What strikes me is that overall many of the nature writing books seem so full of sheer joy and especially “wonderment” at everything from the life of bumblebees and gulls to trees and walking. There is playfulness, beauty and curiosity, in words as well as visuals. 

The motivation for nature writing often lies in the author’s individual sense of enchantment with the natural world, and most of the titles I listed in answer to your first prompt are a testament to such enchantment. Caspar Henderson’s inspirational work – The Book of Barely Imagined Beings and A New Map of Wonders – is particularly full of awe at the sheer complexity and extraordinariness of planetary life.

One of the most successful UK nature books of the past two years has been the gloriously beautiful children’s book The Lost Words, a collaboration between the writer Robert Macfarlane and artist Jackie Morris. It features ‘spell songs’ that conjure vividly, through words and images, some of the elements of the natural world that are fading from children’s vocabularies and lives: creatures like the otter, the badger and the kingfisher, and plants like the dandelion, the bramble, and the fern. The book has become a publishing phenomenon, with individuals and grass-roots organisations raising money to try and get a copy of the book into every primary school in the UK, with significant success. As the term ‘spell songs’ indicates, there’s something really magical about this book, and it’s introducing a whole generation of young children to the enchantments of the natural world.

You mention playfulness, and Charles Foster’s Being a Beast, in which he attempts to live as a badger, a fox, an otter, a red deer and a swift, is at times highly comical, as is Chris Packham’s Fingers in the Sparkle Jar (which last year won a national poll organised by the Land Lines project to find the UK’s favourite nature book). However, I would say that the sense of playfulness and enchantment here (and elsewhere) is often tinged with sadness. In Charles Foster’s case, the comedy of his attempts to become a ‘beast’ is tempered by a sense of failure, a sense that we humans are a lonely species who can never truly know what it means to be anything other than human. Chris Packham’s book is searingly honest about his experiences of growing up with undiagnosed autism (he doesn’t explicitly name this in his book but has done so since its publication), his struggles to fit in with a human world that often baffles (especially in its lack of engagement with nature), and his difficulty in dealing with the mortality of his beloved non-human companions.

GR: In the UK there seems to be an awakening to the sheer “exoticness” of nature right outside the backdoor (“heather moorland is rarer than rainforest globally”). 

 PM: Yes, there is definitely a strand of nature writing that revels in the ‘exoticness’ of the ‘nearby wild’ – the books I’ve just mentioned by Chris Packham, Charles Foster and Rob Cowen are evidence of this, all set in the suburbs or within easy reach of urban centres. Robert Macfarlane’s celebrated nature classic The Wild Places concludes with the insight that at the end of his journeying, wildness turned out to be not something ‘which was hived off from human life, but which existed unexpectedly around and within it’, and I think this perspective is now widespread in the British nature writing scene. New books this year have celebrated this localised richness, for example Gail Simmons’ The Country of Larks: A Chiltern Journey, and there’s a growing sense that the particular habitats of the British Isles are worthy of preservation. Plans to build a motorway relief road through the Gwent Levels in Wales were recently scrapped after a campaign (supported by several nature writers) to save this unique landscape.

Photo by Gunhild Riske

GR: Looking inward can very easily be seen as a kind of nationalist insularity (Brexit). Yet anchored to climate change (plus the Anthropocene unfolding before our eyes) the implicit international aspect maybe prevents it from becoming sentimental? 

PM: There will perhaps inevitably always be some nature writing that is naïve or sentimental in its relationship to place, and even privileges a kind of exclusive localism. But I’d say that is more the exception than the rule, and the majority of our nature writers in the UK have a complex, and largely progressive sense of place. In relation to Brexit itself, it’s a hugely complicated issue and it’s perhaps a mistake to conflate too easily a desire for autonomy with nationalist leanings (though the two are sometimes linked), but a quick scan of Twitter accounts will reveal that many of our best-known nature writers, far from evincing any kind of nationalist insularity or sentimentality, are strongly vociferous Remainers (ie. anti-Brexit).

Leaving aside the vexed question of Brexit, the sense of place emerging from the new nature writing in the UK generally does incorporate a sophisticated awareness of landscape’s entanglements with both natural and social history, and of the intersections between the local and the global. This is not to say that these writers eschew local attachment. It’s more the case that, while understanding the value of devotion to a particular local environment and its flora and fauna, they feel that this should not be at the expense of more expansive understandings that transcend their immediate geographical and social contexts. For some, there’s an explicit, self-conscious awareness of the legacy of place-based writing in the UK, and its association at certain times with nationalistic sentiment. Helen Macdonald writes in H is for Hawk of the way in which her delight in the chalk downlands of England is always tempered by the knowledge that they ‘held their national as well as their natural histories’.

This expanded understanding of place has been further augmented by the strand of ‘archipelagic’ writing that occupies a significant place in the contemporary nature writing of these isles. This has been spearheaded by the creative writing journal Archipelago and draws on perspectives that attempt to reveal the complex interrelationships of the constituent nations of the UK along with its intra-archipelagic forms of colonialism and political domination, and to assert the individual identities and ‘centrality’ of places more often regarded as being ‘peripheral’. A new archipelagic, hybrid work of historiography and nature writing has just come out in the UK – David Gange’s magnificent The Frayed Atlantic Edge – which tells an alternative history of the archipelago from the ‘outside in’, the author’s main research method being to kayak the length of the British and Irish Atlantic seaboard.

Finally, as you say, the Anthropocene changes everything … it’s simply not possible to think exclusively on a small scale any more. Indeed the Anthropocene demands that we engage with dimensions of time and space that push at our imaginative and cognitive limits. I’d argue that some of our best nature writing has been dealing with these challenges for longer than we have had a term for the new epoch. Tim Robinson’s writings from the West of Ireland, the Stones of Aran diptych and the Connemara trilogy, have, since he began publishing in the 1980s, looked back through geological deep time and out into cosmic space in order to reach for an understanding of how we might best dwell in our own individual patches of ‘home planet’. The late German-born (but UK-based) writer W.G. Sebald, traced the ‘natural history of destruction’ involved in human relationships both with each other and with the environment in works such as The Rings of Saturn, which now seem extraordinarily relevant to the environmental catastrophe unfolding before our eyes.

Solastalgia (2019) Clay and crystal, by Katie Marland

But now that we have a name for it and are indubitably in the midst of it, nature writers are responding in a more focused, and in many cases, more politicised way to the Anthropocene. Adam Nicolson’s heartbreaking The Seabird’s Cry considers the evidence and implications of the Anthropocene as he documents the lives of the planet’s beleaguered seabird populations. Tim Dee’s latest book Landfill, which pays homage to the extraordinary variety of gulls that visit municipal rubbish tips and, more broadly, ponders the complicated entanglement of humans and non-human species, is subtitled Notes on Gull Watching and Trash Picking in the Anthropocene. I would say that Robert Macfarlane’s Underland (which has just, wholly deservedly, been awarded the 2019 Wainwright Prize) is the first work of British nature writing to devote itself entirely to the question of the Anthropocene, and as such it breaches the boundaries of what nature writing has previously been deemed to be. In essence, it’s an attempt to understand what it means to be human on this Anthropocene earth, and it does so by thinking back through deep, subterranean, geological time; by bringing to light more recent, hidden and often exceptionally cruel human histories; by witnessing the contemporary crisis refracted through the lens of melting glaciers;  and by imagining the current members of the human species as ‘ancestors’ of both the near and the very deep future, even as we attempt to sequester underground spent nuclear fuel that will remain toxic for the next 100 000 years.

Kathleen Jamie’s new essay collection Surfacing is due to be published later this year. I’ve been lucky enough to read an advance copy and I can see that she too is explicitly situating herself within the Anthropocene, contemplating, in her characteristically wise and incisive fashion, what this epoch means for us environmentally, culturally and socially. While recognising the enormity of our environmental problems, she also offers a perspective that shows how the Anthropocene might also offer unexpected opportunities – for example, she describes the way in which the retrieval of artefacts from a long-buried settlement in Quinhagak, Alaska, that is gradually reappearing as the permafrost melts, puts an ancient indigenous culture damaged by colonialism in touch with its own lost history and its earlier methods of living in tandem with the natural world.

It’s significant, I think, that the final section of Macfarlane’s book and Jamie’s whole essay collection are entitled ‘Surfacing’. Both writers play on the multiple meanings and connotations of the word, from the idea of long-buried things, both material and psychological, emerging (sometimes erupting) from subterranean spaces; to a sense of coming out of, or alternatively of reorienting oneself towards, particular phases of one’s own personal life; to the notion of a philosophical feeling, almost, of accommodation to the new situation, accompanied by the resolution to go on in a kind of hopefulness, even as the darkness deepens.

Dr Pippa Marland was until recently the research assistant on the first phase of the AHRC-funded ‘Land Lines: Modern British Nature Writing’ research project. She now holds a Leverhulme Early Career Research Fellowship at the University of Leeds, with a project entitled ‘The Pen and the Plough’ in which she is investigating the representation of farming in British nature writing.

Gunhild Riske is a Danish journalist and anthropologist. She writes about travel, culture and nature often with a particular focus on “the periphery”. For example how combining arctic birding with architecture in Norway could be a means to developing a sustainable local tourism. Or how art thrives on the Danish islands of Lolland & Falster far from the bigger cities.  She also writes a guidebook in Danish on London: “Turen Går til London”.

Katie Marland is a freelance natural history illustrator: Solastalgia (2019), clay and crystal,  is a piece designed to raise questions of preciousness and worth, looking specifically at museum exhibits and the way in which we display that which acquired worth through destruction, things that are extinct or ancient and rare. What will the natural history displays of our future hold, and will the wildlife that appears mundane now become precious in it’s scarcity?


2 thoughts on “The rise and popularity of British Nature Writing: an interview with Pippa Marland by Gunhild Riske

  1. Wonderful, thoughtful, exploratory interview. Struck a deep & resonant chord with me. Have been nature writing since forever, when, apart from Kathleen Jamie, I was not aware of any other female voices. I cannot separate the human condition from nature, nor can I separate nature writing from an act of protest – am speaking on the subject soon at Greenham Common. Thank you for this.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Thanks for your kind response, Nicola. Your talk at Greenham Common sounds very interesting (fond memories of protesting there with amazing women in the 1980s!). I would love to hear more about this.Also, might you be interested in writing something for the Land Lines blog on nature writing and acts of protest?


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