Land Lines: British Nature Writing, 1789-2014
Professor Graham Huggan and members of the Land Lines research team introduce the project.
Recent years have seen a boom in nature writing, with the publication of hugely popular books by authors such as Kathleen Jamie, Robert Macfarlane, Amy Liptrot, Charles Foster, and Helen MacDonald, among many others. Surprisingly, though, the genre has tended to be critically undervalued in academic terms, and there isn’t yet a full-length study of British Nature Writing. It is also frequently misunderstood. One source of misunderstanding is the view that nature writing supports the myth of stable order – social, moral, ecological – while another is that it performs a consolatory aesthetics designed primarily to restore its readers to the natural world. These views overlook the significant conflicts that have been embedded within British nature writing ever since it emerged as a modern form in the late eighteenth century. Many of these conflicts are coeval with modernity. How can we know ‘nature’, and is it really possible to describe it? To what extent is ‘nature’ a projection of our own individual and collective (national) imaginings? How much can we appreciate it when there is so little of it left?
‘Land Lines’ is a two-year project funded by the Arts and Humanities Research Council, and is a collaboration between researchers at the Universities of Leeds, Sussex and St Andrews. The project will carry out a sustained study modern British nature writing, beginning in 1789 with Gilbert White’s seminal study, The Natural History of Selborne, and ending in 2014 with Helen Macdonald’s prize-winning memoir, H is for Hawk. Between the two lies the jagged history of a genre that emerges under the sign of a triple crisis: the crisis of the environment, the crisis of representation, and the crisis of modernity itself. We’ll be looking primarily at non-fictional prose, not because it is the ‘truest’ form of nature writing, but because it brings out one of the genre’s most fundamental tensions: between the desire to set up a mimetic relation to the natural world and the awareness of the impossibility of doing so, for ‘nature’ is always other to what we imagine it to be, even if we are a part of it ourselves.
The project will offer fresh readings of some of the classic texts of British nature writing, interpreting these in the light of current understandings of fractured subjectivity, post-equilibrium ecology, and the tangled relationship between humans and other animals in what some recent critical theorists have taken to calling an increasingly ‘post-human’, even a definitively ‘post-natural’, world. These understandings are seen by some as underlying the so-called ‘new nature writing’ that has emerged in Britain over roughly the last three decades; but this writing is not as ‘new’ as it appears, and one of the tasks of the project will be to confirm the historical grounding of contemporary debates. Only by seeing nature writing historically, we argue, can it be defended against the peremptory view that it practises a naive realism, or the hasty conclusion that it adopts a largely devotional attitude to the natural world. On the contrary, nature writing is a highly self-reflexive form: well aware of its own limited understandings, finely attuned to the inadequacy of its own language, and keenly conscious of the illusory nature of its attempts to achieve a three-way reconciliation between self, text, and world. Whether nature writing has potential to transform the world it describes is moot, but nature writing is not an escapist form and the project will show how it engages productively with a modern world that is both inhabited by possibly irremediable crisis and haunted by possibly irretrievable loss.
The main output of the research will be a book for Cambridge University Press, but we are also combining our academic work with a variety of public engagement activities involving co-participants of all backgrounds and ages. We have already hosted a series of talks at the Booth Museum of Natural History in Brighton (available here on the website) and are now planning an event with schools in Fife for July 2018, a family fun day at the Living Seas Centre in Flamborough in September 2018, and the Land Lines conference in February 2019. We’re currently running a public poll in collaboration with the AHRC to find the UK’s favourite nature books. It’s open until the 30th November, and you can make your nomination here, along with writing up to 100 words about your choice. We’re hoping that the results of the poll will help us to understand more about the impact and role of nature writing.
The Land Lines team are: Professor Graham Huggan, Dr David Higgins, Dr Pippa Marland and Lucy Rowland at the University of Leeds; Dr Christina Alt at the University of St Andrews; and Dr Will Abberley at the University of Sussex. For contact details, please visit our Contact page.