Crowd-sourced Spring Nature Diary 2020

You still have until midnight on the 27th March to contribute to the 2020 Spring Nature Diary – read the current list of entries, curated by Pippa Marland, here!


by Pippa Marland, Land Lines Team

As I stepped out along an urban street in the early evening yesterday, the clouds were clearing after a bout of heavy rain, and the dusk was full of birds: goldfinches and great tits flitting and dipping from tree to tree; gulls passing overhead; and all along the road, blackbirds and robins, in high branches silhouetted against the sky, pouring out their music, so that the air was thick with song. In spite of the sombre mood of the day, I felt my heart lifting, and the advent of spring working its old magic on me. As George Orwell memorably argued in his 1946 essay, ‘Some Thoughts on the Common Toad’, ‘Life is frequently more worth living because of a Blackbird’s song’. This is all the more the case when that song is accompanied by longer days and the promise of new life all around us.

Nuthatch at springtime
Nuthatch in the Spring (Credit: National Trust Images)

These are anxious times, not only in light of concerns about climate change and species extinction, which the recent Australian bush fires brought home to us so urgently, but also, of course, in relation to the current COVID-19 crisis, which is changing our lives by the minute. It is in such exceptionally difficult circumstances that the return of the light and the resurgence of our flora and fauna, as the winter reaches its end, become all the more important to us – as symbols of hope and regeneration and as a source of much-needed comfort.

Ecologists Jonathan Cox (from Natural England) and Graham Poynter at Hambledon Hill, Dorset.
Ecologists Jonathan Cox (from Natural England) and Graham Poynter at Hambledon Hill, Dorset. (Credit: National Trust Images, Ross Hoddinott)

TODAY – the official first day of spring this year – the National Trust, in collaboration with the Arts and Humanities Research Council and the Land Lines nature writing project at the University of Leeds, are inviting you to join an online community of nature lovers all over the UK. We would like you to submit a piece of nature writing – of no more than 150 words, in prose or poetry – that captures the first day of spring wherever you are, whether you live in a rural, urban, or suburban location. It could celebrate your first sighting this year of a brimstone butterfly, or wood anemones, or tadpoles wriggling in your garden pond. It could record the moment you notice that the horse chestnut trees in your local park are coming into leaf, or see dunnocks busying themselves in the hedges, or hear the curlew calling in one of the UK’s wilder places. You are also welcome to upload a photograph that you have taken to illustrate your words.

Visitors in and around the South West Outdoor Festival, Heddon Valley, Devon
Writing on the South Downs (Credit: National Trust Images, Chris Lacey) 

If you’re self-isolating, or unable to leave your house for any other reason, you can still take part – tell us what you can see through your windows, whether it’s new growth in your garden, or a tree on an urban street covered in blossom.

A view across the gardens at Hill Top, Cumbria, home of Beatrix Potter
You can even write about what you can spot from your window…A view across the gardens at Hill Top, Cumbria (Credit: National Trust Images, James Dobson)

Your submissions will form part of a growing, living archive, recording the arrival of spring across the UK each year, and building on last year’s inaugural crowd-sourced spring nature diary. You’ll be contributing to a centuries-long tradition of nature diarists who have combined citizen science with creativity, to tell us about the natural world and what it means to them. We can’t wait to read your entries!

Mallard ducks amongst daffodils in the garden at Erddig, Wrexham, Wales
Mallard ducks amongst daffodils in the garden at Erddig, Wrexham, Wales (Credit: National Trust Images)

You can upload your diary entries and any accompanying photos via and share them on social media using #springnaturediary. You have until midnight on Monday 23rd March to submit your entries! If you need some inspiration, take a look at the collection of last year’s wonderful entries, The Writes of Spring, curated by the fantastic Abi Andrews.

– Pippa Marland, Land Lines team

Featured Image: Hawthorn in Flower (Credit: National Trust Images, John Miller)


Second Follow on Project Launches: ‘Tipping Points’

‘Tipping Points’: Cultural Responses to Wilding and Land-sharing in the North

Land Lines is pleased to announce the launch of its second AHRC-funded follow on project, titled ‘Tipping Points’: Cultural Responses to Wilding and Land-sharing in the North. Tipping Points comes under the UKRI ‘Landscape Decisions’ programme, which seeks to “address the challenge of delivering better, evidence-based decisions within UK landscapes through research collaboration with policy, business and land management partners to deliver an interdisciplinary decision-making framework to inform how land is used”. Like its sister project ‘Tracks, Traces and Trails’: Nature Writing Beyond the Page, Tipping Points will continue to develop some of the most successful and significant aspects of the Land Lines agenda: specifically, notions of the wild and rewilding, tensions between nature writing and farming, and land-use decisions in Northern England. Over the course of the project, Tipping Points will maintain a close focus on the communities impacted most directly by these decisions, through a series of public engagement workshops, collaborations, and knowledge-sharing between different stakeholders in land ownership, management and agriculture.

Developed alongside the first follow-on project, ‘Tracks, Traces and Trails’, which seeks to render the less visible aspects of our wildlife and environments more apparent, Tipping Points hopes to revisit facets of the natural world that are now ‘lost’: in the UK today, up to a third of mammals and a half of birds are threatened with extinction, largely because their habitats have been eroded to a point where they are no longer able to sustain themselves. These ‘tipping points’ in our natural and cultural landscapes have potentially devastating consequences, but there is also scope for optimism. The British landscape today is in many ways at a positive tipping point: more habitats are being restored for wildlife than taken away. The practices of ‘rewilding’ or ‘wilding’ in both urban and rural areas are becoming more widespread, and major land-sharing projects with farmers are being devised, in order to encourage the resurgence of wildlife. Such restoration processes are as much cultural as they are natural, and if nature is to bounce back in ways that are urgently needed to sustain our own, as well as other non-human animals’, existences, the arts have a crucial to play in stimulating both creative responses to the current crisis and alternative ways of imagining and experiencing the natural world. It may be that we have in fact reached a third tipping point, in which new stories of our natural landscapes emerge and more positive future visions can be articulated for our drastically ‘de-natured’ nation. We hope that Tipping Points will help to capture and explore these visions and narratives over the course of 2020!

One of Tipping Points’ main collaborators will be the Castle Howard Estate, in Yorkshire. The Estate is currently in the planning stages of land-use changes, which aim to combine conserving an at-risk cultural landscape with a wilding initiative. These changes will entail a transformation of their current agricultural methods, and in order to explore the values and meanings of the Estate’s natural/cultural landscape for the local public, Tipping Points will be running a series public engagement activities at Castle Howard, including two creative art workshops and two nature writing workshops, which will take place on the 21st and 28th March 2020 (you can book a free place on any of these workshops here on our Eventbrite page! But be quick – places are filling up fast!). Artists Judith Tucker and Melanie Rose, alongside biologist and Guardian writer Amy-Jane Beer, will be running the Castle Howard workshops, and similar workshops with other guest artists and writers will also take place later in 2020 at Wild Ennerdale (Cumbria) and the Yorkshire Wildlife Trust’s Stirley Community Farm (more details on these later workshops to follow – check back on our ‘Creative Art and Writing Workshops’ page soon!). The workshops will encourage members of the public to engage creatively with the notion of changing landscapes, different conservation initiatives such as ‘wilding’, and land sharing over time.

Alongside the public engagement workshops, at the heart of Tipping Points is a symposium entitled ‘Love and Soil’, which will take place at Castle Howard in June 2020. The symposium will bring together different groups of invited participants, including farmers, conservationists and humanities scholars/practitioners, and aim to facilitate productive and collaborative discussions that open lines of communication between participants, revolving around sustainable land use, ecological and cultural restoration, and connecting people to nature.

Stay tuned via our blog, our events and workshops page, and our Twitter feed for more news and information on our upcoming events, workshops and public engagement activities!

Header image kindly provided by


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“Nature Writing Beyond the Page: Tracks, Traces and Trails” Land Lines First Follow-on Project Launches

The team behind the ‘Land Lines: British Nature Writing’ AHRC-funded project, along with some new additions, are excited to announce the successful AHRC funding and launch of its first follow-on project, called Nature Writing Beyond the Page: Tracks, Traces and Trails.

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Tracks, Traces and Trails is a creative engagement initiative, one that seeks to connect local communities to their local nature reserves, in order to gain a new understanding of environmental issues and the natural world through different forms of art and creative work. The project will be running until October 2020, and will be continuing on from some of the brilliant public engagement activities undertaken by the Land Lines project, taking the idea of nature writing itself in a new direction. Tracks, Traces and Trails seeks to continue the vision of the original Land Lines project – to see the natural world in a new light – whilst breaking new ground through thinking about how we can encounter less visible wildlife and environments, beyond nature writing alone.

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Ozzy the Owl (Illustration by Katie Marland,

Tracks, Traces and Trails has a strong regional focus, concentrating on Yorkshire and bringing together the Leeds-based members of the Land Lines team, Prof Graham Huggan and Dr David Higgins, with Yorkshire-based creative producer Suzie Cross. With this collaborative team, the new project will move beyond nature writing in its textual form, and instead concentrate on exploring the multi-sensory dimensions of experiences of the natural world, paying particular attention to elements of our environment that are difficult to access, such as migratory and nocturnal wildlife. The “tracks, traces and trails” of these usually invisible facets of the natural world – for example the nightjar and the shelduck, which will both be key species of interest in this project – will come into focus through a series of public-oriented workshops, events and creative exhibitions over the course of 2020. Working to make the invisible visible in this new project, we hope to encourage different audiences to participate in our events and workshops. We particularly hope to work with those who may not usually have many opportunities to engage with environmental matters – such as schoolchildren and older generations. This inter-generational aspect of the project has led to connections with two primary schools, and an organisation that supports older adults in Leeds. We hope that participants, through interacting with some of the usually hidden aspects of our environments and sharing memories and experiences of wildlife and the natural world, will be able to identify and create new narratives that emerge beyond the page. These aims contribute to the project’s ultimate driving force: the need to forge increasingly lost connections with the natural world.

One of Tracks, Traces and Trails’ key collaborators on this project is Natural England, represented at two of its Yorkshire-based National Nature Reserves at the Lower Derwent Valley and Humberhead Peatlands. On the 6th December 2019, following some turbulent weather that saw most of the Lower Derwent Valley flooded, a successful launch event for the project took place, marked by an installation composed of lanterns made through workshops with professional practitioners Handmade Parade.

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Lantern Parade by Handmade Parade @ Lower Derwent Valley Nature Reserve

During the event, participant groups visited the Lower Derwent Vally Reserve, learnt about birds that frequent the area, and enjoyed a visit from Ozzy the Owl (pictured below!). Visitors also received a copy of a picture book – Winston’s Journey – created by Natural England, which tells the story of Winston, a whimbrel, as he migrates with his family from Iceland to Africa. Craig Ralston, of Natural England, also demonstrated how bird ringing is performed in order to track movements of individual birds and species, and educated the attendees about the types of data that are collected, why they are important, and how we can use the knowledge acquired from these practices.

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Ozzy the Owl

Over the course of 2020, Tracks, Traces and Trails will develop a new children’s storybook focused on the nightjar, in collaboration with artist Steve Smallman, as well as poems and audio material. Working with another key collaborator, the popular event Light Night Leeds (run by Leeds City Council), the project will commission a “Son et Lumière” light-based artwork in the spring, which will be revealed at Light Night Leeds in October of 2020 along with a lantern parade, as the project’s finale.

We will be providing more information on how to get involved with our public events and workshops over the course of the year – please keep an eye out on our Twitter feed and our blog for updates!

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Ozzy the Owl (Illustration by Katie Marland,




‘A Year in Kingcombe’ by Anita Roy

Today’s guest blog comes from one of the finest new voices on the British nature writing scene, Anita Roy, with extracts from her wonderful account of a calendar year at Kingcombe in Dorset. First published month by month in Little Toller’s online nature journal The Clearing , the diary quickly gained a devoted following. It is now going to be published in book form through a Kickstarter campaign which we hope you will support if you enjoy the extracts below. Stephen Moss writes in his introduction to the book:

“By choosing to write about Kingcombe, and reveal its life – both wild and human – Anita also holds up a mirror to the rest of rural Britain. This rich mosaic of habitats, squeezed into such a small space, could hardly be more different from the degraded, wildlife-free, food factories that pass for ‘countryside’ in the majority of what Chris Packham describes as our ‘green and unpleasant land’.

Visiting Kingcombe really does feel like going back in time: a corner of the English lowland countryside that would have been instantly recognisable to our grandparents and great-grandparents. Yet, as Anita points out, this kind of place is now, sadly, the exception rather than the rule: On my drive home, I am not sure whether to be grateful that such havens as Kingcombe exist, or filled with despair that they need to.”

January elf cup


Walking in the woods, a bright red splotch on the ground caught my eye. It was so incongruously vivid in that winter wash of beige and brown leaf-litter, I thought it must be a Coke bottle cap. On closer inspection, it turned out to be a fungus – a scarlet elf cup (Sarcoscypha coccinea) – and as soon as I’d seen one, of course, others popped into view as if by magic.

I realized I was missing so much, even at a slow walk, so I sat among the fallen leaves and simply looked. The pale tree trunks flared and faded in a slow strobe as the clouds chased across the sun. I noticed an old willow whose massive trunk bent over almost parallel to the ground. Its underside was deeply scored, its moss hung in tatters. It seemed more than simple wear and tear. Then I spotted the culprit lying on the ground: a roe deer antler. Seven inches long with three tines at one end and a ridged frill of bone at the other, it fit snug in my hand like the handle of a cup. We seemed made for each other.

The deer were all around – invisible yet present. Their prints in the soft earth far outnumbered those of humans, horses or dogs, and cylindrical tree guards lay scattered about like spent shotgun casings. And then I looked up – and our eyes met, for a fraction of a second matching each other startle for startle, and then the deer disappeared with a flash of white rump. I stayed frozen, and wondered, if I stayed still for long enough, whether my eyes would refocus and all the deer hidden among the trees would suddenly be revealed, like the primroses and the elf cups, there all the while at the edge of our sight, just waiting for us to pay attention.


It was if the rain would never end. The Hooke valley seemed to be slowly filling with water from the bottom up, and the tops of the hills had already dissolved into the sky. There was not a sign of the lively blood-quickening breezes of March, nor the traditional sharp shifts between cloudbursts and sun that we associate with April. This was no passing shower, but a soft, solid, silent drench: wall-to-wall drizzle, and no let-up in the grey.

I found an old holly tree in a coppiced wood, with three low branches that crossed each other to form a loose triangle. I poked my umbrella through the middle and opened it above them, then sat down on the damp forest floor. Walking through the open fields of this muddy slipshod county, the steady drizzle on my umbrella had sounded like bacon gently frying. It had intensified, as though someone had turned the gas up, prompting me to take shelter in the wood, and here, under my makeshift shelter, the sound was broken into percussive plinks and plonks as the droplets gathered and fell heavy and singly above me.

‘Horrible weather,’ people had said to me. ‘Not very nice, is it?’ or even simply, ‘You’ve picked a bad day for a walk.’

As I sat like some bedraggled gnome under my nylon toadstool, I wondered about these and other pejoratives that we use to describe our natural surroundings. It wasn’t a ‘bad day’ at all. The rain had cleared the stage for me, and being alone in the wide open countryside is one of life’s most precious pleasures, one I treasure all the more for having spent decades in one of the most densely populated – and noisy – places on earth: New Delhi.

And as for the ‘horrible weather’, true it was hardly conducive to sun-bathing, but the all-pervasive wetness had glossed every grass blade, every twig and trunk and leaf. The underwater world where I spent my day was far from dull: the colours in fact seemed to be deeper and more intense, as though everything had been laminated.

We bring our meanings to the world, and paint them on like top-coat. I continued to sit, looking out from under my brolly as from the window of a diving bell. A sudden flicker in the branches – but it was only a grey squirrel. And then I caught myself with that ‘only’. Just because it’s common, doesn’t mean to say that it’s – what’s the phrase? – ‘beneath our attention.’ I watched its aerial acrobatics for a while, its high-speed cornering and breathtaking leaps.

In all the time I sat there in the deep, dank green, I saw nothing more noteworthy than that little grey squirrel, busy doing its little grey squirrel things. It was enough – actually, was more than enough. The longer I sat there, the more the stillness seemed to settle, and the more reluctant I was to break it.

Spring was quietly marching on, proceeding northwards at a stately walking pace. The brambles were beginning to sprout tiny leaves along their spiky dead stems. The trees, still mainly leafless, maintained their wintery silhouettes, but there was a sort of haze in their upper branches now, like a whisper made visible, the hint of new growth, the gathering of the green storm.

March bughotel


It was, in Thoreau’s lovely phrase, the afternoon of the year. The hills slumbered under the wide blue sky, looking more like Tuscany than Dorset, alternately suntanned and bleached. Shorn of their wool, the skinny sheep stood camouflaged against the tinder-dry hayfield, like raised patchwork on a white-on-white bedspread. On the next hill, the black cattle looked like they’d been printed on the pale grass using woodblocks and Indian ink.

All activity around Kingcombe seemed to have slowed, or ceased altogether. The bees stumbled around at ground level, looking more dazed than busy. The swifts and martins that last month blazed around the barn eaves, using the air as a whetstone for their wingtips, had vanished as though they were never there. Every single butterfly looked like a Meadow Brown: even Red Admirals and Peacocks were mottled and liver-spotted, prematurely aged by the relentless heat. The only streak of colour was down in the valley where bright blue damselflies shot through the air like splinters from a shattered pane of stained-glass across the low waters of the Hooke River.

Whenever I’d been there before, the fields, woods and meadows of Kingcombe had been alive with birdsong. The warble of finches, the screech of swifts and martins, the sarcastic laughter of ravens. Now, only the five-note refrain of the occasional woodpigeon mourned the absent rain, and crickets shivered their legs together in answer to the rattle of dried seed-heads.

In Sanskrit there are two terms for the paused breath – the emptiness at the end of the exhale before you breathe in is called ‘bāhya kumbhaka’ and the fullness at the end of an in-breath before you sigh it all out is called ‘antar kumbhaka’, literally the empty pot and the full pot. Wandering through the still, hot fields this August, it felt not just like nature was taking a siesta during the year’s afternoon, but that it had stopped altogether, as a pendulum is suspended, briefly motionless, at the height of its swing. After the energetic, oxygenated, excited flurry of activity in spring, and the lush, ripening fullness of summer we had arrived at the peak, with no more space to breathe, nowhere left to go, but slowly, inexorably outward and downward – the half-year-long sigh emptying out the pot to the crisp, frozen, death-like stillness of mid-winter.

November bracken


Every time I come to Kingcombe, it feels like I’m playing hooky. Setting off up Butt Lane, I decided to go fully off-piste, and explore an area that I had not been to before. I followed Jubilee Trail across a field. By the time I got to the other side, my socks were jammed uselessly in the toes of my welly boots. I stopped to pull them up a couple of times, but it was no use. I extracted the socks, stuffed them in my pocket, and set off again, bare feet rattling around in my boots.

According to the map, if I swung a left, I’d end up at ‘Fuzzy Hanging’, which sounded like just the place to be on this clockless day. Although I love the shady lowlands – the boggy meadows and tree-clumps nestling in the valleys – there’s something exhilarating about the high grounds of the Kingcombe nature reserve. The hills seem to draw back from the sky, as though they are the curtains and it is the main stage. And today, the sky is a total scene-stealer. Fat, towering cumuli with polished edges above trailing gauzy trails of beige rain across the hills; fingers of God making the earth blush gold; flashes of blue in between downpours. On the drive over from Wellington that morning, I’d been graced with not one, not two, but three rainbows in succession.

At Fuzzy Hanging, I hit a road, so I followed it until I came to an L-shaped block of fields that ended in the disused railway line that runs along the northern edge of Powerstock Common – the other ‘wing’ of nature reserve managed by the Dorset Wildlife Trust here.

I clunked along in my roomy wellies until I reached the soggy bottom of a field. Beyond me was the old railway cutting, and beyond that, Powerstock Common. I wanted to carry on but it seemed that all the mud of Dorset had slowly slipped down the hill and collected in the corner, like ill-fitting socks in this boot of a field. My left wellie had sunk into the mud almost to its top, and every time I pushed down with my right, that sank a bit further too. I flailed my arms a bit.

The good mulchy earth did finally relinquish its hold, and I scrambled back up the hill. Inside my boots, my feet were muddy, but inside my pockets, my socks were dry. Things were looking up.

With a silent fanfare, the sun came out. Most of the trees had lost their leaves and assumed their statuesque winter poses, but in a corner of one field, an old oak lifted its branches, still thick with ochre-brown leaves, clear of the ground.

The tree stood in a low bowl – the ground a good ten or twelve feet lower than the surrounding field. I skidded down the side of the bowl and stopped at the base of the trunk.

I lay back on a carpet of sweet nutty-smelling oak leaves and looked up at the tantalising brocade of blue, white and gold. Sky, cloud, leaf, sky, cloud, leaf; the lobes of the oak leaves echoing the rounded mounds of cloud; everything tessellated together. In this cup of earth under this canopy of tree, I was for a moment both hidden and held. No clock could tick me off here, no satellite could spot me. I was alone, AWOL and a bit deliciously lost.


All illustrations by Anita Roy. Kickstarter page here.

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‘The Shock of the New Nature Writing’ by Richard Kerridge

Ahead of the New Networks for Nature symposium taking place in York from 31st October to 3rd November, we’re delighted to reprint from the New Networks for Nature blog (with kind permission from Richard and the NNN team) Richard Kerridge’s wonderfully succinct account of new nature writing. A few tickets are still available for the event, which includes a panel consisting of Zakiya McKenzie, Katharine Norbury, Anita Sethi and Richard Smyth on new nature writing, chaired by Richard himself.


A surprising and wonderful development in the last fifteen years or so has been the resurgence in Britain of the nature writing genre. By this I mean literary nature writing – books, articles and newspaper columns (important in this genre) – as distinct from nature guides and scientific natural history for the general reader. Literary nature writing blends scientific information into narratives of encounters with wild places and creatures. Emotions are expressed. Symbolic and metaphorical meanings are explored. Traditional meanings are invoked, and compared with new meanings. Philosophical ideas are analysed. Personal stories are told. The twining together of these elements makes them inform and question each other. Traditionally, in our educational culture, they have been kept in separate spaces. Environmental crisis demands that they come together.

Recent years have seen a profusion of titles. Many have been memoirs about a lifelong love of a particular type of animal or landscape – a love that has interacted with other profound experiences and questions. Some have been studies of animals or landscapes without the memoir element, but still full of stories and encounters. Some have been ‘door-opener’ books that take a particular object, species or landscape and use it to explore history and ecology in all sorts of places. Some have been nature almanacs or journals, recording the natural events in a place as the year passes. Many are concerned with the seriousness and the urgency of the crisis.

When this resurgence began, several commentators called it ‘the New Nature Writing’, claiming that there are vital differences between these works and earlier books in the genre. Most obviously, these new works are informed and impelled by the crisis; they see nature differently in consequence. It is not territory beyond human influence, or a permanent state of being that stands in contrast to the fleeting nature of human affairs. Wild nature no longer functions as a place of refuge from modernity. To turn back and face the natural world, anxiously, is one of the definitively modern things we have to do. What, then, are the aspects of traditional nature writing that we should value and continue, and what are the aspects that should be rejected? Do any dangerous ideologies lurk in its habits? How should the genre develop? Is it, after that first explosive reappearance, in danger of slowing? What are the limitations the genre must overcome? Does it represent the full diversity of our community? Is it sufficiently responsive to concerns about inequality, or does it evade them? Does it experiment with new literary forms, and does it need to?

At the New Networks meeting in York, a panel consisting of Zakiya McKenzie, Katharine Norbury, Anita Sethi and Richard Smyth will explore these questions. All are exciting new writers challenging tradition and taking the genre in new directions. The panel will open up new possibilities. I can’t wait to chair it.



Process: on writing, inexperience and Kathleen Jamie – by Lauren Maltas

Today we post the final essay in our summer series of emerging nature writers. As we welcome new students to the University of Leeds and the School of English this week, we are delighted to be publishing the work of one of our current English Literature undergraduates, Lauren Maltas.  In “Process: on writing, inexperience and Kathleen Jamie” Lauren offers us a deeply-felt meditation on what it means to read and write about nature, and how reflecting on nature – in its broadest definition – enables her to recover personal memories and experiences which then play an integral part in her narratives of the ‘nearby wild’.

it is the dark side of the moon we call being human’
– Rebecca Solnit, ‘Knot’ The Faraway Nearby

This summer I set out on the biggest writing project of my life and have been persistently reminded that I am only twenty years old, and yet to complete my undergraduate degree. It has been equally the most rewarding and difficult thing I have done, it has cost me a summer of relaxation, and given me a summer of purposefulness. It has also made me question why I want to write, and why to begin with, I thought I could. What I have been writing is a non-fiction book about the place I live, the rural-urban blur-land of West Yorkshire, the spaces I travel through as I commute to and from university. It is also about how I came to be who I am, reclaiming ownership of my dead grandparents, coming to terms with an odd and long-lasting shadow of alienation and overwhelmed-ness.

Before I started writing, I immersed myself in the wonderful piles of nature writing to be found in Leeds’ Waterstones. My neighbour gave me his worn copies of out-of-print nature writing. I’ve read things I’ve loved, things I’ll forget, things I didn’t fully understand, but mostly I’ve read Kathleen Jamie. Her two essay collections had luckily been on two module reading lists at uni, but I was yet to find her poetry. Her Selected Poems popped up as I was about to make a pre-order purchase of Surfacing. I read all the headliners first, ‘Mr and Mrs Scotland are Dead’, ‘The Queen of Sheba’- they were as good as I’d expected. My favourite poem of all in the blue bound book, however, is ‘Moon’. I’m yet to etch it all into my brain, but a few lines are already stuck: ‘She travelled |with a small valise of darkness’, ‘I waited; watched for an age| her cool gaze shift’ and finally the stanza of all-time ‘then glide to recline| along the pinewood floor| before I’d had enough. Moon| I said, we’re both scarred now.’

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Photo by Lauren Maltas

I hadn’t seen a picture of Kathleen Jamie until after I read Selected Poems, or if I had I hadn’t clocked that it was her. In my head Kathleen was quite a faceless figure, in some way, I felt I would recognise her personality if I were to find myself chatting on the street, but I had no way of recognising her physical form through the words she had written. I had begun writing at this point, the first difficult sentences, wading into boggy memories of my grandma’s dementia that coincided so cruelly with my childhood, the snow that became a sign of illness, stillness, and my grandad’s unexpected death. Until I started writing I hadn’t realised that I felt their story wasn’t mine to tell, that somehow, perhaps because I was only their grandchild and not more typically ‘immediate’, I shouldn’t have been so affected by their illnesses and deaths. I kept writing, enjoyed the idea of reclaiming, exploring a time I didn’t even know had been missing. As I was writing about them, I was trying to entwine some sentences on ‘nature’. I made points about forests and national parks, and I said things that essentially boil down to ‘this doesn’t belong to me’ and ‘I will never feel at home here’. I returned to Kathleen Jamie, recalling how I felt she so fitted into her environment, and saw my mistake. She had never left the house, and still the Moon found her. I stopped and re-wrote the forests for my grandad’s garden, the quarries, the scoured patches of land my train zips through. I wrote about houseplants on my windowsills, the ways in which asparagus ferns give the illusion of a vast forest, even on the small desk where I do most of my work. I found a way of seeing nature in everything I participated in every day, instead of a distant place, so typically ‘natural’ that it felt so far from the truth of nature in my own life.

To refresh myself with a change of pace, and because I had been recommended it earlier in the year by a seminar tutor, I began reading Rebecca Solnit’s The Faraway Nearby. It’s not nature writing in the same sense as John Clare or Robert Macfarlane, as in no-one has given it that label. I felt I recognised some of Roger Deakin in his notebooks for the Granta New Nature Writing issue in it, though. It speaks of ‘nature’ in a different way, nature meaning the character of, the personality of, the human condition. It also charts Solnit’s experience of Alzheimer’s with her mother, and crucially how this illness lands you in a position you are not qualified to handle, but must. I remembered my own days with grandma, talking about my imaginary husband when she needed me to be a friend she could feel equal to. Another day out with mum looking for her, finding her trying the doors of all the cars up the street. Rarely was I a child with grandma, rarely did I fit my label. The title, Faraway Nearby, reminded me of grandma even before I read it. That song we sing for her ‘even though you’re far away, we still love you’ which was profoundly accurate both during her illness and once she was gone.

Inside the book, because she was on my mind, floating like a mist through my subconscious, I found Kathleen Jamie again. From her two essay collections, I had been most shocked and intrigued by ‘Surgeons’ Hall’ from Findings. I had thought it out of place in a supposed collection of nature writing, more disturbing, close to home, tactile than anything I had read in the genre before. I don’t like the thought that bodies do not belong to us. That upon death, an organ can be removed, transplanted into someone else, and survive, just fine, another eighty years without you, despite how miraculous I know it is. I do not like the thought that my body is not only mine, and for my own purposes. In ‘Surgeons’ Hall’, bodies and body parts are not primarily for the person that grew them, but exist inside glass jars for the interest and education of the person who harvested them and their future students. They stand as monuments to organs that were interesting, because they went wrong. I thought of my grandma, and a brain in a big wide jar like a goldfish bowl, or even an aquarium.

‘Surgeons’ Hall’ re-appeared to me during Solnit’s chapter ‘Breath’ in which she describes two pyramids jutting out of the sea like a pair of breasts. She writes it was startling to see that what she had thought of as one peak, was in fact two, and ‘more startling’ that they ‘so resembled human anatomy’. A couple of pages over she describes sea urchins, scallops, starfish, crabs which have been dragged up from the ocean floor as being ‘bright like internal organs’. I felt slightly crippled by the thought of that, that ocean creatures who I would hear on the news were being lost to the effects of over-fishing, bleaching, increased water temperatures, were akin to the human body in their vulnerability. In a book not considered ‘nature writing’ and self-described as ‘Memoir/Anti-Memoir’ I found evidence of the kind of nature I could feel, nature that was both happening to me and personally remote, that was because of me and yet not in my control. Kathleen Jamie, and her jars of organs-in-waiting were everywhere to be seen, but again I had missed something. I had been only terrified, shocked and not comforted by something that really, showed me how powerful I was.

I came to my senses later when I re-read Jamie’s essay Frissure. Somehow I had forgotten it, I think, because upon my first read I hadn’t understood it. The key message I take from Frissure is Jamie’s recognition of the importance of perspective, that in requesting a surgeon to try to repair you, or an artist to draw you, you relinquish your control over how you are seen. In asking Brigid Collins to make art out of her scar, Jamie relinquished herself to the gaze of an artist, and in doing so opened up the possibility of perspective. Her scar could become both a sign of medical intervention, and also a starting point from which to create.

As you can probably imagine, I realised that to say I was supposed to be writing, I was spending most of my time reading. In truth I didn’t feel ready to write these things that I knew I felt when I read them, but somehow didn’t think I would be able to articulate so that my reader would feel them too. I was only twenty and yet to complete my undergraduate degree. I still didn’t feel I completely had the right to claim my grandparent’s deaths, or to say that my urban-rural blur was in fact ‘nature’. I turned my attention to other things until the confidence built up again.

Lauren 2
Photo by Lauren Maltas

The ‘other things’ happened to be poetry. I went back to ‘Moon’, and I wrote a series of short, scrappy poems. One day after a visit to my one remaining grandparent, fifteen minutes in my garden, and a sandwich produced from pretty desolate cupboards, I wrote this:


I grow Chinese lanterns, teasels, honesty

Simply to preserve them.

It occurs to me as I make a sandwich

That the beetroot, sliced and in vinegar

Has been grown like this, with this intention.

As my seedlings grow, a month now before drying

I speak with my gran, about the joy of peeling boiled beetroot.

Of course I don’t know it, but I tell her

Yes, it is like peeling off a scab (dead, healed skin)

And she cannot tell the difference.

They are not particularly good poems, but they showed me the various ways in which the jars of organs, my dead grandparents, my fascination with stillness and remnants, will leak into my life if I don’t tackle them directly. I tell myself that it doesn’t matter how badly I write about them, whether or not other people think of this as an exploration of nature in its many incarnations, or simply as a clumsy mish-mash. What I’ve learnt from Kathleen Jamie is that nature is everything that lives or ever lived. From Jamie, Solnit, and my grandma, that nature is both choices and sometimes an unfair and unexpected series of events. I have sent the beginnings of my writing, around 10,000 words, off to be read by people I don’t know, who have never met my grandparents, and might never have been to West Yorkshire. Expect that if I am successful you might hear about it, if you happen to be reading this. If not, then know that I am probably still writing it anyway. Going on experiencing nature in my own particular way, appreciating, observing and participating in it. Worse comes to worse, I will still have Surfacing left to read.


Works cited:

Selected Poems by Kathleen Jamie, Picador 2018

The Faraway Nearby by Rebecca Solnit, Granta 2014

Findings by Kathleen Jamie, Sort of Books 2005


Lauren is a final year English Literature undergraduate at the University of Leeds, where last year she was the School of English’s Writing Intern. She currently edits the school’s poetry magazine Poetry & Audience, and is working on a creative writing dissertation concerning human value in the New Nature Writing. Most recently she has had poetry and prose published by Strix and Caught by the River, and hopes to make a career out of writing once she graduates. When Lauren is not writing, she is busy finding new ways to re-use old junk in her small wildlife garden.

The Discomfort Project
Twitter @DiscomfortLeeds 

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?