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Ben Hoare: New Nature Writing in Britain

Ben Hoare 2

BBC Wildlife Magazine Features Editor, Ben Hoare, tells us his thoughts on current nature writing in this guest blog post for Land Lines…

Every autumn a wonderful event in Stamford, Lincolnshire, brings together authors, poets, artists, musicians, film-makers, scientists, conservationists, campaigners and more to reflect on nature and what it means to us. New Networks for Nature is always an inspiring couple of days. This time, in the town’s genteel arts centre and down the pub, I canvassed people’s opinions about nature writing.

Why is writing about the natural world experiencing such a dramatic flowering in Britain, I wondered? What is the source of this tremendous outpouring of passion and creativity? And does it show any sign of waning?

The answer came back as startlingly loud and clear as a wren pouring its little heart out on a frosty morning. Our great and unrivalled tradition of nature writing continues to go from strength to strength.

Fellow ‘networkers for nature’ – including several household names and a few leading publishers of nature writing – added that the surge shows no sign of slowing down. Nature writing reflects our love for the wild world, they said, and a fundamental human need to engage with, make sense of and celebrate nature.

Nature writing is a response to loss, too – of meadows and marshes, hedgerows and heaths, ponds and peatbogs and many, many other wild places. “It’s been important in us dealing with that sense of loss,” wrote Mike Collins of the Arts and Humanities Research Council (AHRC). “Both in terms of connection with nature but also the disappearance of species and the threat to our green spaces.”

Bookshops now have whole sections devoted to nature writers, and there has been a mushrooming of nature-writing courses, seminars and talks. The Wainwright Prize, established in 2014, is helping to propel nature writers and their work into the limelight. Nature writers are invited to speak at music festivals, sharing (appropriately enough) ‘green rooms’ with rock stars. Some authors – Helen Macdonald, Amy Liptrot, Robert Macfarlane and Chris Packham, for instance – have made the bestseller lists.

In Britain nature writing has a long history, going back to naturalist Gilbert White in the late 18th century and peasant-poet John Clare in the early 19th century. It has encompassed great fiction, such as Henry Williamson’s Tarka the Otter (1927) and Richard Adams’ Watership Down (1972), and great memoirs, such as Gavin Maxwell’s Ring of Bright Water (1960). I’m currently reading a new edition of A Black Fox Running by Brian Carter, first published in 1981, a lyrical but bleak tale of talking foxes and their human pursuers set on Dartmoor, which deserves to become much-better known. And it is not just prose – there are great nature poems and polemics as well.

But the pace of publication is new. The sheer quantity of nature writing we are now enjoying is a relatively recent phenomenon that has gathered speed over the past 10–15 years.

When it was first published in 1973, Richard Mabey’s landmark book The Unofficial Countryside – which explored scruffy ‘edgelands’ such as bomb sites, urban canals and rubbish tips – was not surrounded by shelf after shelf of similar titles. Neither was Roger Deakin’s equally important and influential book Waterlog (1999), about the joys of wild swimming.

Something else has changed. As Mark Cocker wrote in the November 2017 issue of BBC Wildlife Magazine: “One significant achievement of the new flood of books is to create more diversity among authors in terms of their identity, gender, age and social background.” Not before time.

So it’s an opportune moment for the AHRC to be organising the Land Lines initiative, with researchers at the universities of Leeds, St Andrews and Sussex. And, since plebicites and referendums can be unpredictable things, it’ll be fascinating to see which books come out top in the project’s poll to find Britain’s favourite books about nature.

– Ben Hoare, Features Editor, BBC Wildlife Magazine

Sir David Attenborough

www.discoverwildlife.com

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Last chance to nominate your favourite nature book!

Image: Ian Phillips – ‘Llyn Gwynant Stories’. Used with permission https://reliefprint.myshopify.com

Since the launch of our poll on the 25th October 2017, we have had an incredible response to our hunt for the UK’s favourite nature book. From reactions to our segment on BBC’s Autumnwatch to replies to our tweets and blog posts, we have seen engagement with our project from across the UK. Many different conversations have been sparked by our celebrity and research team nominations, and we’ve had some fantastic contributions from the public on the topics and discussions we’ve raised. How has British nature writing changed and diversified over the years? Why are certain works still treasured, and why have some been nearly forgotten? These are just two of the many questions and ideas that have been addressed in the submissions we’ve received over the past month.

Hundreds of nominations have now poured in, and as the poll draws to a close, we’ve gathered some of the most interesting responses: some are sentimental and nostalgic, some are inspiring and empowering, and some have even motivated environmental activism or work in nature conservation. Some of you who have already cast your vote have been kind enough to share your thoughts on your nominations with us – keep scrolling to read some of the reasons behind a few of our varied nominations!

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Dragonflight  – Marianne Taylor

“This book rekindled a joy in me I thought I had lost through urban living- that which I had as a young child, pond-dipping and finding weird prehistoric looking dragon nymphs in the muck. Marianne is a beautiful and honest writer and her words leap off the page.”

Meadowland – John Lewis Stempel

“It is a fantastic & evocative description of the changing seasons on a farm in Herefordshire. What resonates is the celebration of the rural landscape, curiosity of wildlife behaviour and the vibrancy and occasional cruelty of nature. It is stunning writing.”

H is for Hawk – Helen Macdonald

“Never before have I been so lost in a book in the same way that I get lost in nature. A beautiful, lonely, heartbreaking and rewarding tale of love, loss and the rocky road between the two. Wonderful stuff.”

The Observer Book of Birds

“It’s a pocket sized book that is beautifully illustrated both in colour and black and white. It describes 243 species which is enough for a young enquiring mind to begin with. This little book has been in the family forever, three generations have kindled a love for birds, progressing to other species, the environment and ultimately our role in caring for our planet. It’s one of those ‘magical’ books.”

The Peregrine  – J. A. Baker

“Since I was a child I had been a birdwatcher and interested in natural history. Baker’s book took that to a whole new level. The interaction of wild creature, landscape and human transformed my view of what ‘natural history’ is.”

The Country Diary of an Edwardian Lady – Edith Holden

“It reminds me of when I was a child, Its a beautiful book and very informative, accessible to all ages.”

Four Hedges – Clare Leighton

“It’s a celebration of nature within a hedged garden, and illustrates that we don’t need to go far to learn about and enjoy nature; it’s happening on our doorstep if we’re prepared to accommodate it. Leighton’s writing illustrates how place attachment, community and a sense of wonder can combine to promote behaviors which support and preserve nature. The beautiful wood engravings in my 1930s copy of this book  alone make it worth having; they’re so full of energy and affection.”

The Outrun – Amy Liptrot

“This is a beautifully written book about recovery through nature and place.  It brings The Orkneys landscape, fauna, weather, archeology, astrology, community to life.  Its a compelling read which sucks you right into the natural world and the recovery journey pitting addiction against nature. A very gifted and honest writer.”

Wildwood – Roger Deakin

“I love everything about this book and I have bought multiple copies to give away to friends. I love the language and I felt compelled to underline some of the phrases just because they are so beautiful. I also like the way the chapters describe very different topics but within the Woody theme. This book reignited my love of nature writing.”

Continue reading “Last chance to nominate your favourite nature book!”

Lost Classics, Disregarded Forms

This past week, to coincide with the Being Human Festival theme of ‘Lost and Found’, we’ve been thinking about examples of nature writing which, though popular in the eras in which they were originally published, later fell into obscurity. Some of these have been re-discovered in recent years, while others continue to be disregarded.

In a piece written for the Arts and Humanities Research Council website, independent publisher Adrian Cooper describes Little Toller Books’ endeavours to bring lost classics of nature writing to the attention of contemporary readers. Little Toller began the process in 2008, wanting to ‘celebrate the long history of nature, landscape and place writing in the British Isles’ through putting back into circulation older, sometimes out-of-print, nature books. The first three publications in their Nature Classics series were The South Country by Edward Thomas, Ring of Bright Water by Gavin Maxwell, and Men and the Fields by Adrian Bell.

Little Toller are particularly interested in works which celebrate specific landscapes. Little Toller are particularly interested in works which celebrate specific landscapes. They hope to provide their readers with a means of connecting the past and the present, thus enabling them to discover the kind of ‘local and regional nuances’ which have unfolded over time. From small beginnings, the publishing house now has over forty titles available in this series — a roster which includes Clare Leighton’s Four Hedges, A.G. Street’s Farmer’s Glory, and Richard Mabey’s Home Country. These books complement Little Toller’s collection of new work by contemporary nature writers. Adrian Cooper imagines all of these texts, old and new, ‘murmuring to each other, informing and reviving’, conjuring up the image of a genre in dialogue with itself, both in the face of significant changes in the way in which we understand the natural world and in response to the British landscape’s ongoing, radical reshaping. You can read his article in full here.

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Sometimes an entire form of nature writing may reach a peak of success and then decline. Alison Skinner has written to the Land Lines team to tell us about her research into what she calls ‘fictional wildlife biography’. This popular form of nature writing spanned much of the 20th century but, Skinner argues, has now almost disappeared from view. She feels that the current canon of nature writing favours non-fiction books, and that a whole sub-genre of British nature writing has been largely forgotten:  novel-length fictional accounts — often based on careful observation and deep knowledge — of the lives of wild animals. There are, of course, notable examples which have retained their popularity: one is surely Richard Adams’ epic story of a band of wild rabbits, Watership Down; another is Henry Williamson’s Tarka the Otter. While Williamson’s personal reputation has been somewhat tarnished by what we now know about his politics, his sweeping account of a Devon dog-otter’s life, first published ninety years ago, is still held in high esteem. Miriam Darlington, in her own hymn to the otter, Otter Country: In Search of the Wild Otter, praises the way in which Williamson ‘caught the objective reality of otters and created a poetic mythology at the same time’. Another of Williamson’s animal narratives, Salar the Salmon, has been reprinted in the Little Toller Nature Classics series.

However, in Alison Skinner’s view, fictional accounts of wildlife have, on the whole, tended to be critically disparaged and associated to their detriment with a now unfashionable anthropomorphism. Although Skinner herself recognises the pitfalls of imbuing fictional animals with human attributes, she argues, as do some contemporary ecocritics, that anthropomorphism can be a means of establishing a sense of community with the non-human, can enable us to draw on our human experience of being alive in the world in order to reach an imaginative understanding of the lives of other creatures. For Skinner, the best of these books

  • ‘Reflect the first hand observations of generations of local countrymen and women;
  • Provide a time capsule regarding the attitudes to nature and growth of environmental awareness of the writers;
  • Highlight unacceptable practices affecting different species in the countryside, which may have helped the drive to outlaw traps, baiting and certain types of hunting;
  • Had an influence on a pre-TV generation of naturalists and wildlife professionals on both sides of the Atlantic who were stimulated and drawn to finding out about the natural world through their imaginative involvement with the fictional life of an animal or bird.
  • Inspired members of the public to love the countryside and protect and conserve its wildlife’.

bodachAs such, she feels that these books merit our continued attention. She has gathered a list of sixty six fictional wildlife biographies, written by authors such as Joyce Stranger (Chia the Wildcat; The Hare at Dark Hollow) and J. C. Tregarthen (The Life Story of a Fox; The Life Story of a Badger), and classified them according to the kinds of animal to which they relate. As she notes, their subjects are often members of iconic mammal species — fox, badger, hare, otter, roe and red deer, seal, porpoise and whale — though birds become more frequent from the 1970s onwards (a development Skinner associates with the growth of interest in bird watching).  Her favourite animal story is Bodach the Badger by David Stephen. What’s yours? And are there any ‘lost classics’ you feel should be restored to print? Land Lines would love to hear from you.

by Dr Pippa Marland, University of Leeds

You can contact us at landlines@leeds.ac.uk, or on Twitter @LandLinesNature. The poll to find the UK’s favourite books about nature will be open until the 30th November. You can make your nomination here: http://www.ahrc.ac.uk/favouritenaturebooks/.

‘Bearing Witness’: Reflections on the Launch of the UK’s Favourite Nature Books Poll by Dr Pippa Marland

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Image: Ian Phillips – ‘Llyn Gwynant Stories’. Used with permission https://reliefprint.myshopify.com

Some of the most popular and respected nature writers in the UK have been helping us to launch the Land Lines public poll to find the UK’s favourite books about nature. Mark Cocker wrote a piece for BBC Wildlife Magazine, Helen Macdonald and Esther Woolfson spoke to the BBC Radio 4 Today programme about their nature-writing influences, and Robert Macfarlane joined Chris Packham and Michaela Strachan to promote the poll on Autumnwatch, appearing in and narrating a short film about J. A. Baker’s The Peregrine (1967), a book that has been a particularly powerful inspiration for his own writing. Taken together, these pieces have helpfully brought into focus some of the best qualities of nature writing, as well as highlighting certain questions and conflicts that surround its production and consumption.

The work of nature writing that has spoken most significantly to Helen Macdonald in her adult life is Gilbert White’s devoted study of a Hampshire village, The Natural History of Selborne (1789). She attributes her admiration for White to the way in which his work ‘explains, even to a very modern audience, how to look upon the natural world with detached analysis and delight’. While, as Mark Cocker notes, the term nature writing is ‘devilishly difficult to pin down’, he sees Gilbert White as the first exponent of the modern genre, and, indeed, White’s book marks the starting point for the Land Lines project: a study of British nature writing from 1789–2014. For Cocker, White’s ‘warmth and personalised manner’, in tandem with his meticulous observations – or in Macdonald’s words, his combination of ‘delight’ and ‘analysis’ – establish a tonal template that is ‘one of his great gifts to all those writers who have come afterwards’. Thus begins a tradition of non-fiction prose writing in the UK that continues to the present day, as new generations of writers variously adopt, scrutinise, extend and/or flout its conventions.

Esther Woolfson’s choice is a much later work – Nan Shepherd’s glorious paean to the Cairngorms, The Living Mountain, which was largely written during the closing years of the Second World War but not published until 1977. Like White’s study of Selborne, the writing involves the intimate observation of a particular location combined with a degree of personal reflection, in a style that holds the two elements in careful balance. It can also be seen as evidence of a development in the literary reach of prose nature writing. It shares with J. A. Baker’s The Peregrine (published ten years earlier) a peculiar intensity of language and a marked poetic flair: qualities Macfarlane identifies appreciatively as forms of ‘generic disobedience’. Woolfson says that she responded to Shepherd’s work above all ‘because it was just a very beautiful and natural book which encouraged me to think about the world around me’.

Continue reading “‘Bearing Witness’: Reflections on the Launch of the UK’s Favourite Nature Books Poll by Dr Pippa Marland”

Lost Nature Classics: How Little Toller is reviving forgotten books

Every year, many classic books go out of print, becoming lost or forgotten to new readers. Adrian Cooper, one of the brains behind Little Toller Books, explains the joys and difficulties of reviving forgotten nature classics.

One of the most haunting experiences I’ve had as a publisher is walking through the warehouse where our books are stored before being distributed to shops around the British Isles. A kind of vertigo took hold of me there, in the belly of the whale, seeing for myself the infinite avenues of shelves, with books and boxes stacked so high that surely only a tip-toeing giant could reach them. A maze of books. Millions of them, all in limbo until somebody claimed them, summoned them into life.

It is not just old books or out-of-print books that are lost. New ones can be too. And this warehouse can be either a port of discovery, a place of disembarkation and possibility. Or it can be a graveyard built from paper and card.

Little Toller set out in 2008 to revive classic and forgotten books about nature and rural life. Photo credit: Graham Shackleton

When something is published for the first time, nobody can predict how many copies will be sold or how many years it will stay in print. There is no algorithm that tells me or anybody else how many copies to print, let alone how many will sell in the months and years to come. Experience and guesswork lead the way, followed by the meeting of those unpredictable forces that push and shove against every book: Reviews, publicity budgets, the author’s celebrity, social media, word of mouth, booksellers, how much discount publishers give bookshops, awards, blogs and newspaper editors…

These elements can launch a book, creating a wave of noise that propels it into the high ranks of the Amazon charts. These things do not, however, translate into longevity; which is a good thing to remind yourself as a publisher, especially one who works from the edges, snapping at the heels of larger companies and conglomerates. Neither money nor influence guarantees immortality. Instead, I prefer to believe in the silent exchange between page and eye, author and reader, where a sort of shamanism takes place: Something much more to do with the originality of the author, the tone of their voice, and how the particular qualities of their story provoke us. Perhaps all books are lost until this moment, whether they are new or old.

Part of what we have done at Little Toller, in creating a ‘nature classics library’, is to revive old books by stimulating a new appetite for them. The idea was simple when we started: To celebrate the long history of nature, landscape and place writing in the British Isles. We wanted to reflect the regional and local nuances, the shifts of style, subject or wider historical and environmental context. But why should people care about these old stories? Aren’t we obsessed by the latest this? Don’t we demand the newest that? And isn’t parochialism a bad thing?

Landscapes – both urban and rural – may be far too complex and dynamic for us to ever understand fully. But we still identify ourselves and our communities with them. Old books, lost books; however you want to describe them, they reveal this. A library of lost books, threaded by a simple idea, gives people the opportunity to discover and rediscover this for themselves. Place matters; whether we are aware of it or not.

The South Country by Edward Thomas was one of the first titles published by Little Toller. Photo credit: Graham Shackleton

Ten years ago, when we started publishing, this sense of continuity between old and new was lacking. Tarka the Otter by Henry Williamson and The Natural History of Selborne by Gilbert White were the only books I could find in print in the high street, along with the Dorset writers Thomas Hardy and William Barnes. The economic reliability of this clutch of authors neglected the depth and breadth of writing that had emerged over centuries, through wars, and between wars, all of which shares insight into what changes and what endures in our relationships with the natural world and the very particular places we inhabit.

From what is now our son’s bedroom, we started Little Toller Books by preparing three titles: The South Country by Edward Thomas (introduced by Robert Macfarlane), Ring of Bright Water by Gavin Maxwell (introduced by John Lister-Kaye) and Men and the Fields by Adrian Bell (introduced by Ronald Blythe). I taught myself how to design books and proofread, while Gracie, heavily pregnant, chose artwork, negotiated rights for covers and telephoned almost every single independent bookshop in the country, telling them about the nature library and asking ever so politely if they would take a book or two, possibly, perhaps, please.

We now have over forty titles in this series, which compliments the current generation of authors who we also publish; and I like to think that all these titles, new and old, are always murmuring to each other, informing and reviving.

Like all publishers, we are challenged by what to keep in print. We’re not keen on the digital, preferring the physical form, which means ebooks and print-on-demand are not an option. With these particular intentions and beliefs, we have created a nemesis: A publisher that started its life bringing old books back into print, now has to decide for itself the books to keep in print and those to let go. It is quite a friendly nemesis, one that is extraordinarily fun and rewarding to live with. It’d be a relief, from time-to-time, if the nemesis would go on holiday or move next door for a while. But if it upped and left altogether one day, unannounced, there’s no doubt we’d mourn the vanishing, and perhaps the gravity of what we’ve started would disappear too.

You have until the 30 November to have your say in the search for the UK’s favourite nature book here. Once you’ve submitted your choice, share it on twitter using the hashtag #favnaturebook

Research Team nominations: full list of our favourite nature books!

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Although members of the Research Team can’t vote in the poll, we have put together our own favourite nature books to serve as some inspiration and food for thought: each member of the team has chosen to champion a work of nature writing that they particularly admire.

Dr Pippa Marland – Findings and Sightlines by Kathleen Jamie

Kathleen Jamie’s writing is economical and precise, but also deeply thoughtful. In Findings and Sightlines she uses the essay form brilliantly, vividly delineating her experiences of places and animals, but at the same time reflecting on these experiences in order to move towards quietly philosophical conclusions.

As well as considering environmental issues such as pollution and species loss, she also has a keen eye for the social and economic histories of landscapes – for the often hidden stories of human struggle. I particularly like the way in which she sees the interior of the human body as nature, and neatly dispels the myth that to encounter wildness you must travel to far-flung places, or conform to some (often masculine) adventure stereotype.

Instead she shows how the wild enters into our busy, daily lives, perhaps just at the edge of our vision: ‘Between the laundry and the fetching kids from school, that’s how birds enter my life.’ She’s also got a wry, engaging sense of humour. Anyone who has brought up children will appreciate her observation, when she returns from a trip to the Scottish island of St Kilda, that it is her husband, who has been at home caring for the toddlers, who looks ‘ravaged, like Robinson Crusoe’.

Dr Pippa Marland is part of the ‘Land Lines: Modern British Nature Writing 1789-2014’ research team.

 

Dr Will Abberley – A Naturalist’s Sojourn in Jamaica (1851) by Philip Henry Gosse and Richard Hill

This little-known book is as interesting for its reflection of the history and racial politics of Jamaica in the Victorian period as it is for its descriptions of the island’s wildlife. Gosse was an English naturalist who co-wrote the book with Richard Hill, a Jamaican ornithologist whose mixed-race status put him in a complicated position in the imperial social hierarchy.

The book recounts Gosse’s travels around Jamaica, assisted by Hill, and their observations of plants and animals in lush, poetic impressions. Yet the book is also haunted by the history of slavery, which had only been abolished 10 years before Gosse’s visit, and casts a shadow over the descriptions of the island’s human inhabitants.

Dr Will Abberley is part of the ‘Land Lines: Modern British Nature Writing 1789-2014’ research team.

 

Professor Graham Huggan – The Enigma of Arrival (1988)
by V S Naipaul

Whether Naipaul’s semi-fictional memoir counts as a ‘nature book’ is moot, but it’s certainly an accomplished piece of writing about the environment. The environment in question is a quiet corner of south-west England, where Naipaul has lived off and on for many years, having moved to England from Trinidad, his birthplace, in the 1950s – a move chronicled in some of his earlier work.

Naipaul’s work is nothing if not troubled, and the aptly named The Enigma of Arrival is no exception. ‘England’ has always been something of a fantasy world for Naipaul, and much of the book is an ironic engagement with this fantasy, with the narrator, a thinly disguised version of Naipaul himself, traipsing about in tweeds as a kind of imported English country gentleman – albeit one living on the margins of a faded manorial estate. It is difficult to say what is ‘natural’: certainly not Naipaul’s ‘natural’ surroundings, which have been repeatedly worked over, but equally certainly not ‘Naipaul’ himself. As such, The Enigma of Arrival is both a homage to and a parody of English pastoral, always alert to the colonial privileges it both displays and undercuts.

Professor Graham Huggan is part of the ‘Land Lines: Modern British Nature Writing 1789-2014’ research team.

  Continue reading “Research Team nominations: full list of our favourite nature books!”