Three books, which I heard were forthcoming at the New Networks for Nature conference at Stamford last year (a hot tip for 15-17 Nov 2018), have just arrived and sent me hunting for references to ravens, with which I get intimate each spring. I had been warned, when I first moved onto the Mendip Hills of Somerset a few years ago, that local sheep farmers might not share my fascination for these characterful residents of the local quarry where I went rock-climbing. I should keep quiet about them and certainly not blog about arranging for their ringing. But these two books each suggest a long association between birds and people that only hints at their significance for human culture and human wellbeing. Stephen Moss, in his immensely readable book Mrs Moreau’s Warbler: How Birds Got Their Names (Faber and Faber, 2018), makes a telling point: ‘the name we use for this huge and fearsome corvid is not all that different from what our prehistoric ancestors might have called it’. He finds this both ‘astonishing and comforting’, and so do I.
By the third century BCE, the Greek scholar Theophrastus was recording that ravens behaving uncharacteristically was a sign of oncoming rain. I learned this, and much more about ravens in Birds in the Ancient World by Jeremy Mynott (Oxford University Press, 2018), an impressively organised and illustrated book that I shall also be dipping into forever. But it was Mark Cocker’s latest polemic on the shocking decline in British wildlife that we have allowed to gather pace in my lifetime that prompted me to want to share one of my journal entries on raven ringing. In Our Place: Can we Save Britain’s Wildlife Before it is Too Late? (Cape, 2018) Cocker is critical of the apparent separation of our creating SSSIs and demanding cheap food from monocultures, of our mass membership of the RSPB and ignoring the creeping loss of habitats on our doorsteps, of our love of birds in poetry and their disappearance from our fields and footpaths. It suddenly struck me that as writer of poems full of bird life (Gifford, A Feast of Fools, Cinnamon Press, 2018) I was as culpable as anyone in Cocker’s critique, but that in arranging the ringing of my local ravens I was, at least, perhaps making a small contribution to the science of their study and a database of the local wildlife. Brought up in an education system dominated by C. P. Snow’s notion of The Two Cultures (CUP, 1959) it has taken a lifetime, and the invention of ‘environmentalism’, to heal the cultural distance between the arts and sciences in a personal way. So here is an account of raven ringing in a Mendip quarry.
In this extract author and scholar Shashank Kela reflects on the development of nature writing in India in the late 19th and the 20th century. The passage is taken from the essay ‘Where The Wild Things Are Not: the curious absence of contemporary nature writing in India’, which was first published in The Caravan on 1st April 2018 and reprinted here with permission. You can find the full article at http://www.caravanmagazine.in/reviews-essays/absence-contemporary-nature-writing-india
My starting point for the purposes of this essay is the late nineteenth century. By this time the natural history of the Indian subcontinent was reasonably well established. Its characteristic ecotypes, with much of their flora and fauna, had been described; almost all the birds we know had been identified. The language is English, for the kind of nature writing being discussed presupposes some knowledge of natural history, and because it’s a language I’m familiar with—there may well be texts about nature written in Marathi, Bengali, Telugu or Tamil that would be fascinating to compare, but I don’t know them. Within these limits is included any work on nature written by anyone resident in the Indian subcontinent for long enough to be able to speak knowledgeably about it.
The first Indian nature writers were British residents (colloquially called Anglo-Indians), who had grown up in the country or spent the greater part of their lives there. The bulk of their work dates from the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. It’s usually in the form of short vignettes mixing observation with a strong streak of facetiousness. Douglas Dewar, ornithologist and civil servant, remarked that popular books “on Indian ornithology resemble one another in that a ripple of humour runs through each.” His Jungle Folk, a collection of newspaper articles on birds, originally published in 1912, has recently been reissued by the publisher Aleph. Dewar’s prose zigzags erratically through different registers, from the highly coloured to the unpretentious to the banal. Anthropomorphic metaphors proliferate; the writing provides commentary and information rather than insight or transcendence.
“Dewar’s prose zigzags erratically through different registers, from the highly coloured to the unpretentious to the banal.” – Shashank Kela
The best representative of the Anglo-Indian school is, in many ways, the most atypical. EH Aitken—or Eha, the sobriquet under which he wrote—was born and, somewhat unusually, educated in India. He got a job in the Bombay government in 1876 (in the Customs and Salt Department), serving in various parts of the Bombay Presidency and Sind. He was one of the founder members of the Bombay Natural History Society, and a gifted writer of what, for want of a better word, might be called nature essays. His prose is learned, full of classical allusions and Latin tags. It modulates fluently from the comic to the meditative. The natural history is rather sparse, with many digressions, but Aitken never loses sight of the main thread, the animal under observation.
One of the highlights of the Land Lines research trip to St Andrews in April 2018 was the workshop hosted by Land Lines team member Dr Christina Alt, poet and writer Professor John Burnside, and St Andrews University tutor, Dr Garry Mackenzie. Titled ‘Framing Nature’, the workshop invited young adults from the First Chances programme to consider how we look at nature in our day-to-day lives, in literature and in music, and how we can identify and understand the different framings that we impose onto our environments.
Throughout the morning, the students were invited to listen to and reflect on the integration of birdsong into music by John Burnside, who played a selection of songs that exemplify a composer or artist’s relationships to birdsong, or nature more generally: for the full playlist and a more detailed discussion of the morning’s events, take a look at our blog post on ‘Wild Music’ here. The afternoon activities, however, were geared towards how we associate language and literature with images of nature. Firstly, the students were invited to share three photographs they had taken over lunch on a walk around the town: the images they produced were all inspired by the concept of framing nature, and we were presented with some fascinating perspectives, including a paper frame laid over a dead guillemot on the beach, a rusted window shutter, moss-covered stone staircases, and a bright hedgerow with a single red berry tangled in its leaves.
The students had clearly carefully considered their task – some had captured the invasion of a beachside garden by ducks, others had focused on decay and decline through crumbling architecture. One particularly well-composed image depicted the ageing cliffs above the East Beach, with rock formations visible underneath.
One Tuesday in April I found myself in the unusual position of listening to the early morning shipping forecast, as issued by the Met Office at 05:20 hours. Unlike the other rare occasions I’d caught this broadcast, when I’d simply relished its musical cadences and meditative repetitions, this time I tried to follow its actual content, tracing the sea areas and coastal stations around a map in my mind and listening out for those on the east coast of Scotland. I was due to visit the Isle of May that afternoon, joining colleagues from the ‘Land Lines’ research team, all of us hoping to see the island’s famous puffin colony. Cromarty, Forth, Tyne, Dogger, east 5 to 7, decreasing 4 at times, rain or showers, fog patches at first, moderate or good, occasionally very poor at first… Leuchars, north east by east 4, one thousand and nine rising slowly.
To my uneducated ear it sounded like grounds for cautious optimism, but I knew that the ferry from Anstruther had been cancelled the previous day, and I had already been warned that it was looking doubtful for that Tuesday too. Recent reports from the island described the effects of adverse weather in the preceding weeks, and while the worst of the storms had abated, heavy seas and strong winds were still hampering travel. The successive ‘beasts from the east’ had taken their toll on the birds too. The puffins had arrived in late March but then headed back out to sea as a second wave of high winds swept in from Siberia, not returning to the island till the 8th of April. David Steel’s Isle of May blog[i] reported some deaths among the seabird populations, mostly young and older birds, and a delayed start to the breeding season, not only for the puffins but also for the shags, razorbills and guillemots.
Around 10am, on my way northwards, I heard that the ferry would not be running. We had a back-up plan for our afternoon, though, and the boat trip was replaced by a walk along the coast path from Kingsbarns to St Andrews. It was a testing experience in the wind and driving rain, redeemed by many moments of stern, arresting beauty. But in the final few miles we began to come across the bodies of dead birds: guillemots – first one and then another, and another, and another. It was a sight that filled us all with a deep sadness, all the more distressing because we didn’t know how to interpret these fatalities. Personally, I felt an inability to gauge how great a component of my grief was a sense of guilt – a guilt that was itself hard to pin down. It was personal and collective, immediate and dispersed. Of course, extreme weather events have always happened, and under harsh conditions weaker birds perish and the stronger ones go on to breed. But in the blurred distinctions and tangled agencies of the Anthropocene, doubts linger. Were these naturalcultural rather than natural deaths, a result of anthropogenically-induced climate change rather than the workings of natural selection? And were they harbingers of worse to come, in the context of already catastrophic species loss? The words of Kent and Edgar, as they watch King Lear howling over Cordelia’s lifeless body, came into my head. Is this the promised end? Or image of that horror?
As part of the ‘Land Lines’/’First Chances’ events for pupils from schools in Fife, held in St Andrews on 12th April, the writer John Burnside gave a talk on music inspired by the natural world. He spoke about how the sounds of nature can have a profound emotional impact on us, and about the ways in which the voices of the wind and the sea and animals can infiltrate musical compositions. He played some examples, beginning with Cantus Arcticus by the Finnish composer Einojuhani Rautavaara, which combines samples of birdsong (shore larks and swans) with instruments imitating that song, followed by a passage from Ravel’s Daphnis et Chloé, in which the orchestra mimics the sound of the dawn chorus.
John said that while we might be able to hear, to a greater or lesser extent, listening is a gift. Actively listening to the world around us can set us off on a voyage of discovery. His next example was Erland Cooper’s Solan Goose, which begins by immersing us in the world of gannets, with their voices gradually fading away as human-generated sounds take over. John felt that this composition showed that the human and gannet worlds were different but that each of them feeds back and forward to the other, and he told the group that this kind of creative interpretation of human/non-human interrelationship can help us to think about the environment, can contribute to our understanding of the world.
One of the most important features of this kind of music, in John’s view, is its rootedness in place – Rautavaara’s music on the arctic coast of northern Finland, for example, and Cooper’s in the Scottish Orkney islands. Cooper’s music is composed using an upright piano and home-made folk instruments such as might be found in houses on Orkney, as well as electronic sounds. John argued that we need to know the stories and songs of a piece of land in order to be able to keep that land alive. Birds too have their specific places, he said. It’s important when listening to bird song to note when and where the bird is singing – resident species sing more at certain times than others, and some birds sing together. We should also listen to the rhythms and textures of the sound. For John, this kind of paying attention is the beginning of creativity, the beginning of imagination.
Recently, I was invited by Dr Garry Mackenzie to sit in on a St Andrews reading group discussing Nan Shepherd’s The Living Mountain. Garry has developed a course offering ‘A Literary Tour Around Scotland’ as part of the St Andrews Open Association continuing education programme. Garry explained that while many members of the group are long-time participants in the programme, some were taking this course because of its particular focus on Scottish literature, and one participant, a keen hillwalker, had signed up for the course specifically because he had read The Living Mountain before and wanted an opportunity to talk about it, as well as other books with a focus on Scottish places.
I am a recent arrival in Scotland and a new but enthusiastic convert to Shepherd’s The Living Mountain. It was Shepherd’s playful yet purposeful subversion of conventional approaches to viewing and interacting with a landscape that first inspired my interest in her work. This subversion is perhaps best encapsulated in her suggestion:
Lay the head down, or better still, face away from what you look at, and bend with straddled legs till you see your world upside down. How new it has become! From the close-by sprigs of heather to the most distant fold of the land, each detail stands erect in its own validity… Details are no longer part of a grouping in which I am the focal point, the focal point is everywhere. Nothing has reference to me, the looker. (11)
Shepherd’s recommended stance offers a refreshing alternative to the traditional image of the climber upright upon a summit, and Shepherd’s departure from conventional poses encapsulates her wider effort to defamiliarise both the landscape around her and the conceptual frames through which we habitually view nature in order to make these newly and differently visible and interpretable.
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.