What are we writing about when we’re “Nature Writing?”
This question is prompted by thoughts from the excellent three-day little festival in South London, the Balham Literary Festival, titled A Way of Being in the World. What a great title, because it leaves open any number of possibilities. The fact that it’s mostly nature and landscape writers involved is telling, though. There is no question there has been a resurgence in “Nature Writing” over the past decade or so here in the UK—the books just keep coming out. And we keep reading them. One of the running themes of the discussions after each session, and even in some of them, is why is this happening. There are presumably many reasons, but the basic one is that people feel the need to read about nature and landscape, and writers feel the need to be writing about it. So what we had here was an outrageously good line-up of writers who have done exactly that.
One happy result is that there are lots of people not only writing books on these issues, but who area also happy to sit on a stage and talk about them as well. So the three days of the festival basically consisted of panels of three authors nattering on about something or other, and reading from their books. Pretty standard fare for these sorts of things, then. Friday we had a panel on international nature and travel writing, which included Sara Wheeler, Helen Macdonald and Patrick Barkham, which by definition was going to be interesting. One point on which we disagreed with them was their shared agreement that nature writing was travel writing—we think travel writing is writing about discovery, while nature writing should embody a degree of knowledge such that you’re comfortable that the writer knows what she’s talking about. But it’s a point on which you can have a lively debate, especially over a pint.
But this was a series of discussions not so much focused on nature writing as landscape writing. There’s a strong difference here, which came out in a number panels. Nearly all the panels were as interesting as the international one, which is sort of unprecedented for this sort of event. They all benefited from having excellent moderators, also something of a rarity. (And kudos to the fine folks at Dulwich Books, who organized the entire event!) We had an interesting discussion of flâneurs and walking on Saturday. We also had a lively exchange on extremes of environments, including comments from Andrea Wulf, who recently wrote a really interesting looking book on Humboldt, which I picked up a copy of, and from James Macdonald Lockhart, who wrote Raptor, about the major bird predators around the country, which I also picked up a copy of. I had already read William Atkins’s The Moor. Watching a group of accomplished writers navigate around questions (and each other) is always fun. It’s even more so when you’ve read some (or all) of the panelists, which was thankfully the case for most of the festival.
What interested me were the themes that came out of this. The state of the world, for one—many of these writings are about transformations of he countryside and landscape, or the planet, for that matter (Gaia Vince’s Adventures in the Anthropocene). The improving science of many areas, and the increasing lack of scientific awareness of the public—even in the UK, where book readership is generally high. The role of myths in our construction of nature and landscape—the British (well, northern European, actually) myth of the Green Man is a particularly powerful one. There are churches all over the place in England (and France, Belgium and Germany, as far as I know) that are full of green man statues or sculptures up in the bosses, or on pedestals, or wherever. Why is the preservation of pagan myths so important, even in a country that had been heavily Christianized by the first millenium? And why are we making a new set of myths surrounding the green man now?
Actually, the Green Man session was the most interesting of the festival, for a couple of reasons. First, this was an interesting example of how a symbol morphs into another one over time. Originally perhaps a warning—the forest was a scary place to be in the year 1300—the green man is now regarded as a benign connection to the natural world. Secondly, it had two of the smartest and most interesting guys on the face of the planet chattering away about this or that—Robert Macfarlane and China Miéville. You almost had to feel a bit sorry for Nina Lyon, also on the panel, who wrote the slightly dopey but occasionally entertaining book Unravelling, about the Green Man myth and her semi-comical attempt to set up a Green Man cult. I wouldn’t want to be in the middle between those two making one brilliant comment after another either. It was almost unfair.
But a number of good cultural observations came out of it—the current fetish with animals as marketing tropes (bears, and now bees), which everyone predicted would be replaced by some sort of vegetable motif within five years; Green Men spoke vegetable, and not animal; the current trend towards animism; the extent to which all of this reflects what Miéville called “anthropocene anxiety;” the extent to which nature is now making us post-human, rather than humans just dominating nature; the question of whether we have the language necessary for even describing some of the cultural changes that are occurring now with reference to landscape.
This wasn’t the only excellent discussion. The festival closed with an interesting discussion between a couple of science writers—Fred Pearce and Gaia Vince—about what the anthropocene will look like, along with the architecture critic from The Guardian. Surprisingly, they were all optimistic, as was the audience, although this is marginal—60/40 or thereabouts. Not hugely encouraging, but better than one would have thought. Vince’s excellent book is basically about what people in areas already being affected by global warming are doing about it—the guy who is crating glaciers in the himilayas, for example.
There was also the point of the necessity of just getting out there and seeing the world—for all of these writers, the notion of armchair writing was close to horrifying. Humboldt was the model for environmental writing as it’s currently written and read—Humboldt told his editor that he was “unembarrassed by lyricism,” and that the editor should leave the lyrical parts in. To Humboldt, they were just as important as the scientific writing. This has been a good rule of thumb, at least in Britain.
I also was caught up in the discussion of nature and landscape, although all these skirted what to me is the most interesting question—can you have landscape writing without nature? Most of us live in urban landscapes, which we can describe at will without any reference to nature whatsoever. But it appears most people would prefer their landscape literature to be nature literature. Books about hawks remain popular, even as fewer of use encounter them in our daily environment. There is clearly a disconnect here, and people are mindful of it, in part, I suspect, because people here still feel a kinship with the land—the move to cities and what suburbs there are here really only occurred in the last generation or so, and most people still have relatives on the farm, or in a rural environment, so it’s not that unfamiliar a concept. In the US, this move has been going on for much longer, so our disconnection has existed longer as well. We really don’t know what we’re missing—the British seem to, at least better able than Americans.
In this regard, the notion of “edge spaces”—those areas in or near heavily urban environments that still have some natural state—that Rob Cowan discussed in Common Ground is an interesting one. One reason for this is that they can be transitory—they move around. The one you know may only be around for couple of years—and then be replaced by another one. In London, these are moving east as the city expands—that’s the only way London can go these days. But all cities, and even the burbs, have them.
One other aspect of this that I noticed was that the majority of the writers here were young. Well, I’m at the point where everyone looks young. But when I think of US nature writers, it’s generally people of my generation, or not too far behind—Terry Tempest Williams, Gary Nabhan, Barry Lopez, Annie Dillard, Rebecca Solnit, Edward Hoagland. These are major figures in American landscape writing. And they were major figures in American landscape writing 25 or 30 years ago as well, with the exception of Solnit. We did an Amazon search for younger American nature writers, and couldn’t find any. Not that they’re not out there. I just don’t know who they are. Not a problem in Britain. But as Mrs W pointed out, landscape and nature are considerably more political in the US than they are here. Maybe nature writing , or whatever we’re calling it, just isn’t political enough for American audiences, or writers.
One of the joys of living here is the sheer literacy of the place. The good and kindly organizers of this event could easily put on another one of these next year with the same theme, but a completely different cast of writers. (Well, when I say easily, that’s a relative term—these sorts of events are always a lot of work, clearly.) I can think of a half dozen off the top of my head who would have something interesting to say about nature, landscape and writing, and I’d like to hear them all—Richard Mabey, Kathleen Jaime, Jules Pretty, Graham Harvey, Peter Davidson and Graham Robb all come immediately to mind, and I’m sure more would spring forth if I put my mind to it. And people will come—probably the same people sitting around the pub at this year’s event.
There are a couple of wonderful reasons for this. First, it’s a highly literate country—this point needs no explication. Second, there are simply lots of writers, more per capita than the US, certainly, although not as many as Iceland or Finland. Still. Third, it’s a small country—it’s easy for people to have a shared landscape experiences here. Practically everyone in the country has been to a moor, so when William Atkins writes a book called The Moor, there’s an almost built in response to say, oh, that looks good, I think I’ll try that. This is hard to come to grips with if you’re American—the US is such a big country that it’s hard to think of a shared landscape for the entire country. Places like Yellowstone and Yosemite, and the Appalachian Trail, are now so congested that the concept of Nature seems perverted. You can find this on a regional level, certainly—New England, or the Southwest or the Pacific Northwest, or any number of other identifiable regions. But the sheer size of the country works against the idea that everyone has been to the same landscapes. Not a problem here—most people manage to make it to Cornwall, or the Lake Country, or the Pennines, at least once. It’s an island in the North Atlantic, after all.
Perhaps most important, people are trying to reconnect. It’s mostly an urban country now, like much of the world, but there’s this recognition that we’ve become disconnected from the land, and from nature, and that we’re not thrilled with the landscape prospects we’re facing—what Wendell Berry (now 80) has been writing about for decades. And even though it’s an urban country, much of the urban population is only a generation from the farm, or some other aspect of rural life. This is true for everywhere, but the British are more likely, it seems, to write about it.
And there’s the distressing fact that in many cases, what we’re writing about is loss—loss of a treasured plot of ground, or trail, or vista. This has always happened, of course. But there are two important differences now, I think. First, the sheer scale of transformation is larger, both in potential scope, and in potential impact. And it seems to be accelerating, too. Second, there’s an outright fear of what’s coming along. Landscape change has always been with us—part of being human has been the never-ending transformation of the physical world. But as Gaia Vince elaborates in her excellent Adventures in the Anthropocene, echoing thousands of scientists and environmentalists of all stripes, what’s coming along is unprecedented. We already know what we’re going to lose. In the past the pace of loss has generally been gradual, although this has accelerated over the past century. But now we can see the future coming along, and not only is it not what it used to be, but it’s coming faster than expected. This is not only worrying, especially for those of use with children and grandchildren—it’s exhausting.
So if our response is simply to kick back and read a book about birds, or wandering the moors, well, so be it. The problem is deciding what to start next—Raptor, or The Invention of Nature (about Humboldt), or Common Ground. Not that it matters, really–it’s all good.