TLS commentary: Plashy Fens – The Limitations Of Nature Writing

“White is interesting because nature is interesting,” the biologist L. C. Miall wrote in 1901. Perhaps he should instead have written: if you find nature interesting, you will find White interesting. Gilbert White’s Natural History Of Selborne (1788) has been regarded since its publication as a landmark text in British nature-writing. Does it still cast a shadow? Do the nature writers of the past decade owe White a debt?

In 1946, James Fisher, the old-Etonian doyen of post-war English ornithology, followed Miall in using a foreword to Selborne as a pulpit from which to propound his views on the purpose and practice of nature writing. “White,” he argued,

has been elevated to the fountain-head of a tradition – of elegant nature writing – which has developed into a mockery of the honest language of the Natural History. Sometimes this tradition has been known as the White-Jefferies-Hudson tradition . . . The epithet applied to writers in this tradition is usually charming. Charming nature writing. Oh, the critics and reviewers, the weekly columnists, the nature correspondents, who find Nature “charming”; who find White’s Selborne “charming”; who find the emotional, romantic outpourings of Jefferies “charming”; who find the humourless introspection, the self-conscious pessismism, the nostalgic obscurantism of Hudson “charming”; and who lump them altogether in their charming paragraphs to charm those who think nature is a plaything!

Today we are more likely to call it “lyrical” nature writing than “elegant” nature writing. And “charming” is not quite right now, either – at least not in the feather-footed-through-the-plashy-fen sense in which Fisher meant it. Perhaps we might now use something a little darker – “bewitching”, or “enchanting”.

Do we still regard nature as a plaything? The word suggests frivolity and there is not very much of that to be found in modern nature writing. We do, however, use nature as in early development we and other animals use play – to explore ourselves, stretch our limbs and test our limits. We no longer see nature as a child’s picture-book; it’s more like a challenging Young Adult novel, asking us who we are, what we mean, what we want to be. Nature is interesting because we are interesting. You are unlikely to open a modern work of nature writing and find anything like the cheerful disclaimer with which Sir Edward Grey, birdwatcher and British Foreign Secretary at the start of the First World War, began his hugely popular book The Charm Of Birds (1927): “This book will have no scientific value. Those who have studied birds will not find in it anything that they do not already know; those who do not care for birds will not be interested in the subject”. We are not allowed to not be interested in nature any more. We are it and it is us, and to have no interest in it is to have no interest in our own humanity.

Fisher was a zoologist. Nature – avifauna, specifically – was a thing to be studied, and, crucially, a thing apart. In his essay of 1946, in disinheriting Richard Jefferies and W. H. Hudson, he reallocated the Selborne legacy to a different line of descent, one that went Montagu–McGillivray–Howard–Witherby. Fisher knew full well that few people would know these names. He would perhaps have argued that this ignorance rather proved his point. These men wrote in the White tradition, Fisher believed, because they were first and foremost field-workers, observers. It was George Montagu’s forensic attention to detail that first put ornithology on a scientific footing in the early nineteenth century. Eliot Howard’s groundbreaking book Territory In Bird Life (1920) set out, in pragmatically readable prose, the results of intensive in-the-field study; Harry Witherby, the founder of British Birds magazine, pioneered “systematic investigation” of the subject by an army of volunteer birdwatchers. Of course, that was what all of these men were: birdwatchers. Just as Charles Darwin was a committed botherer of limpets and earthworms, they were – like Gilbert White – scrupulous and driven in seeking out, observing and identifying birds. This is not and never has been a fashionable pastime.

Mark Cocker, who is perhaps England’s leading contemporary nature writer, is a birdwatcher too. His books – little ones like Crow Country, huge ones like Birds Britannica and Birds And People – combine clear prose and a thoroughly everyday humanity with what Michael McCarthy, the environmentalist and journalist, has called the “terrifying expertise” of the birder. The blurb for the paperback Crow Country describes the book as “a prose poem in a long tradition of English pastoral writing”. This is exactly the sort of thing that excited James Fisher’s ire. Cocker writes beautifully and with great versatility, but you could comb the English pastoral tradition for a long time and not run up against a sentence like “Six links down the chain was a maisonette in Woking whose original deeds had failed to specify ownership of the attached garage”.

It’s a reflex in many readers and reviewers to read great nature writing and cry “poetry!” The biologist E. O. Wilson provided another recent example in his assertion that David George Haskell had created “a new genre of nature writing located between science and poetry” in his splendid book The Forest Unseen (2013). This is roughly the position in which “prose” might generally be thought to sit, but, even leaving that aside, Wilson’s remark is puzzling, because Haskell’s writing – while wonderful – is not very poetic at all. Perhaps Wilson meant that the conceit of Haskell’s book is poetic, which might be true enough: The Forest Unseen presents a square metre of woodland as a microcosm, what he calls a “mandala”, and there is certainly grandeur in this view of life. But in nature writing of this sort, where there is poetry, there is danger: “bad scientific poetry”, as Richard Dawkins points out in Unweaving the Rainbow, can obfuscate as much as it clarifies. Poetry is persuasive.

Haskell’s book is above all a masterpiece of contextualization. It’s a book not about hawks or snails or bacteria or coyotes, though it includes them all, but about their – and our – shared ecology. It is not enough – no, not possible – for the nature writer to stand apart from nature. In The Charm Of Birds Edward Grey wrote that man, the “moral being”, was “so separate from the wildlife of nature that the two things are not comparable at all”, but we understand now that this is far from the case. Yet freedom of expression is not an obligation to express; recognition that a writer must be part of the story does not compel the writer to become the story. We can conflate Flaubert’s dictum that the artist must be in his work as God is in Creation. The world and the work are one and the same, and the writer has no choice but to be in both. So is Gilbert White less present in the world of Selborne than, say, the “emotional, romantic” Richard Jefferies is in his writings on nature?

No. To speak quietly is not to be absent. The White that we find in Selborne is mild, somewhat idle, curious, outward-looking, and unambitious (as Miall wrote, there is no “bustle” in White, no urgency to claim scientific priority). In short, the White of Selborne is a man who finds himself rather less interesting than the world around him. This is what Fisher finds admirable in White, and it is the occasional absence of the same self-negating evaluation – more accurately, its reversal – in Jefferies and Hudson that draws his patrician disdain. Actually he is more disappointed than angry with Hudson, noting that he might have joined the White-to-Witherby line, “had he not stopped being an observer and become a soliloquizer too soon”. Anyone who has read Jefferies on, say, the roosting of rooks or the hovering of the kestrel could argue that Fisher might have made the same allowance for him, too.

More writers in this century take their cues from J. A. Baker than from Gilbert White. Baker was the enigmatic author of The Peregrine, a study of falcons in the Essex saltings published in 1967. It is a work that’s notable for being minimalist in content – peregrines come, peregrines go, peregrines come again – but written, for the most part, in the most vertiginous of high styles. In his foreword to a re-edition in 2005, Robert Macfarlane offered an explanation for this contrast. “What Baker understood,” he wrote, “was that in order to keep the reader reading through the same cycle of events, he had to forge a new language of description.” Nature is interesting because Baker is interesting.

People without an interest in birds who pick up The Peregrine on the basis of its being fashionable might be alarmed to find that certain parts of it do nothing but tell the reader about birds: “The juvenile peregrine preys mainly on those species that are most numerous in its hunting territory, provided they weigh at least half a pound.” This might have been written by James Fisher. Are these sections and sub-sections in opposition to the extravagant prose of the rest of the book? Was Baker, in effect, smuggling his dry ornithology into bookshops under cover of a luminously dramatic prose-poem?

There are, pace Wallace Stevens, considerably more than thirteen ways of looking at a blackbird. The same bird becomes many different birds in a new light, in a new place, on a new day. When Baker, in the space of a few pages, describes starlings in flight as “a dark fist”, as “rising like smoke”, as “dwindl[ing] up in spiral tiers and widening gyres”, as “volleys of arrowed starlings hiss[ing] overhead”, he is not groping for variety, fearful of stultifying the reader with repetition; he is describing some of the many forms that starlings in flight can take, the many impressions they can make on the observer. In The Peregrine, Baker explicitly rejects the notion of the “objective” observer of nature. But he is not deliberately stylizing what he sees; he is working hard to show it to the reader as accurately as he can.

The Peregrine has been hugely influential, to the extent that the term “lyrical” in discussion of nature writing can often be read as synonymous with “Bakeresque”. Robert Macfarlane singles out “the nouns sprung into verbs, the verbs torqued into nouns” (and so, in Miriam Darlington’s Otter Country, for instance, the otter doesn’t swim like a porpoise, it “porpoises again and again under the surface of the waves”, and in Macfarlane’s The Wild Places, litter “gaudied the beaches”). Onomatopoeia often trumps literal sense: Baker’s short-eared owls “soothe” from the undergrowth.

Elements of Bakerishness are everywhere in the nature-writing scene across which Macfarlane strides like a giant (“dressed in shepherd’s garb and a-walking with a shepherd’s gait”, to quote John Crace’s thrillingly cruel spoof in the Guardian). Another is the fixation with the portentous gerund, the –ing noun deployed to impart a terrible gravity, an archaic and even Tolkeiny ring, to one’s writing. Macfarlane gives us “the human shallowing of the deepwood”, Olivia Laing a “territory of vanishings”, Kathleen Jamie Findings in her book (2005) of that name. In his practically self-parodic Holloway, Macfarlane writes, “This book is about a holloway & its shades, & a clear map of the holloway’s finding is not contained within it.” Baker had a masterly command of language. Imitating him – like imitating, say, Nabokov or Joyce – should not be attempted without great care, and too much modern nature writing bears the smudges of the writers’ desperate groping for the mot juste. Page after page is dotted with too-carefully-chosen “lyrical” words: sluice, knapped, sintering, root-nooks, moiling, fust, petrichor – perfectly fine words in themselves, of course, but their cumulative effect is to make the writing reek overpoweringly of the lamp.

In parallel with this comes a clatter of namedropping, not of VIPs but of plant-names and place-names – Cloonkill, Sliebh Mis, Dal’Arie; cranesbill, stitchwort, selfheal, heath bedstraw. They have an evocative sound, but they are also, looked at squarely, jargon. Perhaps as well as seasoning the text they serve the purpose of all jargon: to gatekeep, and protect privilege. James Fisher was a scientist with an Oxford degree, and felt, one can assume, secure in his position of authority. He was no snob, however, and in his brisk handbook Watching Birds (1941) he wrote that, “though I like to think I am a scientist myself, I would not like to feel that scientists could set themselves up as dictators of what has to be done and thought in ornithology. Scientists have no more right to be the bosses than have any of the other kinds of people who have a share in the subject”.

Watching Birds, though, is elsewhere quite strictly didactic, and – like, but more mildly than, his essay of 1946 on White and Hudson – reflects the hostility of the enthusiast towards the fellow enthusiast who is enthusiastic in the wrong way. The nature writer knows more than you do, has been to places and seen things you haven’t. The nature writer knows strange words and folk-names. Or the nature writer – like a one-upping football supporter – simply cares more than you do, feels more exalted in the presence of nature. The nature writer is obsessed by nature in a way you will never be. That these impressions come across isn’t always the writer’s fault. Nature writing is very often a literature of aspiration, and therefore of envy; why am I stuck here, while Macfarlane/Macdonald/Mabey is up a mountain/out hawking/watching bittern in the Fens? That can’t be helped. But obsession in nature writing – often tied in tightly with possession (in either sense) – has become so embedded in the genre (or rather, in the minds of certain publishers) as to become an essential component of the formula.

Miriam Darlington was obsessed by otters, and always had been. Robert Macfarlane announces: “I could not now say when I first grew to love the wild, only that I did, and that a need for it will always remain strong in me”. Olivia Laing begins with “I am haunted by waters”. Helen Macdonald, of course, both possessed and was possessed by her hawk, Mabel – and another British writer, Conor Mark Jameson, staked a claim to gos-obsession in Looking for the Goshawk. Even Mark Cocker had his rooks. It all starts to stretch the credulity a bit – like the sign on the railway station café that declares itself “Fanatical about pastries, sandwiches and cold drinks”.

It comes from Baker, of course. “For ten years I followed the peregrine. I was possessed by it. It was a grail to me.” What also comes from Baker – and in the same parcel, as it were – is a rather romantic self-obsession, generally taking the form of po-faced self-dramatization, a grave and weighty humourlessness, or a stagey and over-precious reverence. At sentence level, this can result in the excision of contractions (as in a period drama) and an over-abundance of paragraphs with heavily ominous closing lines. At book level, it can result in something like Holloway, with its opening intonation “Hol weg. / Holwy. / Holway. / Holeway. / Holewaye. / Hollowy. / Holloway” and lines like “All elsewhere is milk. A void”.

It can all seem rather mannered, not to say posed (pose is exactly the word that comes to mind at times in The Wild Places, when Macfarlane presents us with a series of aspirational tableaux: the author sitting thoughtfully in his local beech tree; the author hunkered “on top of a hundred-foot-high glacial drumlin” eating “black rye bread with cheese”; the author watching the Atlantic from a wild Galway beach – “a happy marooning”). It’s this sort of thing that so irritated the Irish Times’s Eileen Battersby in her review of H Is for Hawk. Macdonald, Battersby wrote, “sets out to establish a tone of fey eccentricity. It is quite maddening” (the book as a whole was rather severely dismissed as “one of those trendy personal memoirs masquerading as nature writing in which the human agonies . . . relegate the natural world to an arch subtext at best”).

Memoir-writing of any kind of course encourages a degree of self-dramatization. But it takes a certain sort of very serious self-assurance to write of oneself, as J. A. Baker does, “Like a roosting hawk, I listen to silence and gaze into the dark”. Imagine saying it out loud. Or: “My pagan head shall sink into the winter land, and there be purified”. Or, as Macdonald does in relation to a minor mishap at a barbecue: “Ketchup dripped down my arm like a wound”. Personal taste – an intolerance of sustained high emotional intensity, a sensitive cringe-reflex – shouldn’t detract from the many strengths of H Is for Hawk: Macdonald is hugely knowledgeable, sometimes very funny, and has a viscerally brilliant command of descriptive writing in the Baker vein. Battersby seemed disappointed to find that the book wasn’t a “nature” book. Richard Mabey, too, has groused about that in the newspapers of late, opining (somewhat Fisher-esquely) that personal memoirs and books about captive animals aren’t really “nature” books at all. But this desire to categorize – perhaps the old birder’s urge to identify family, genus and species – is misguided.

Criticism of a work about nature shouldn’t be seen as an exclusionary measure aimed at designating the work non-canonical: Not Nature Writing. Mabey has also made a distinction between “nature writing” and “natural history writing”, the idea presumably being that the former is what Mabey does and involves wellington boots and a copy of John Clare’s collected works while the latter is what James Fisher did and requires Latin and a degree. It’s a false distinction. The “nature writer”, the “naturalist” and the “zoologist” are fluid identities. There’s a parallel here with E. O. Wilson’s recent dismissal of Richard Dawkins as “a journalist” – and “journalists are people that report what the scientists have found”. This sort of categorization is helpful to librarians and bookshop shelvers, but does the individual writer a disservice. Nature writing is nothing if it is not the broadest of churches. All human life – and all other life, too – ought to be here; at a time when a troubling homegeneity of sex, race and class prevails in nature writing, diversity of every kind must be welcomed.

Mabey himself wrote earlier this year that he longs for the day that “nature writing” is just “writing”, which is as it should be. There’s plenty of scope to criticize individual works on nature topics without seeking to get them disqualified and their authors struck off the register. Mabey, of course, is an elder statesman of a certain tradition in British nature writing, slotting more or less neatly in between Oliver Rackham and Mark Cocker. Rackham, author of The History of the Countryside (1986), was “humorous, trenchant, wry, and with a pleasant directness of expression”, Melissa Harrison has written, and a writer who “intrudes in a personal way into the text barely at all”. Mabey rambles a little wider in his work, and allows us to see a little more of himself (though his necessarily introspective Nature Cure is not typical), but both write as though chuntering to themselves – or perhaps to each other – in the course of a country walk. Cocker has fewer cranky moments, more everyman charm. The works of all three are staggeringly rich in expertise.

Cocker has written extensively about being a “birder” – that is, among other things, an in-the-field expert. He is, as Michael McCarthy put it, “a writer-naturalist, or a naturalist-writer, and it [is] impossible to tell where one passion began and the other ended”. He has written, too, about embarrassment: about childhood fears of being taunted as a nature-loving “sissy”, of – as an adult – sloping off when the discomfort of hanging around a housing estate with a pair of binoculars became too much. He presents a stark contrast to, say Robert Macfarlane (who is never a whit abashed). Cocker’s brand of nature writing shades into the extended feature-journalism of McCarthy’s excellent Say Goodbye to the Cuckoo or Jameson’s Looking for the Goshawk. The latter might have come with a version of Grey’s caveat: Those who do not care for goshawks will have no interest in the subject. The book is, it’s true, framed as an obsessive pursuit of the bird, but literary goshawk obsessions are now a competitive sport, and in these terms Jameson is a distant third to Macdonald and T. H. White. His strength, as with Cocker, is his expertise, as a birder and as a writer.

To say that technical expertise sits at the opposite end of the spectrum from personal communion with nature would be to create a wholly false opposition. The biologist David George Haskell concludes The Forest Unseen with a confrontation: the author, a committed man of science, bumping up against the realization that “wild animals enjoying one another and taking pleasure in their world is so immediate and so real, yet this reality is utterly absent from textbooks and academic papers about animals and ecology. There is a truth revealed here, absurd in its simplicity.” He adds, a little later, a heartfelt warning “not to turn away from science”, and there is no contradiction here. A swooning Keatsian response to the nightingale’s song needn’t be scorned as unscientific; Dawkins has posited that, as Keats and the nightingale were both relatively recently-evolved warm-blooded vertebrates, the poet experienced much the same overwhelming biochemical responses to the bird’s song as another nightingale might have.

Haskell’s gentle push away from overacademicized nature study recalls the early nineteenth-century grumble of Charles Waterton, who complained that the modern breed of naturalist “spent more time in books than in bogs”. Later in the century, Richard Jefferies’s arch essay ‘Nature and Books’ (1887) explained at length the futility of writing on nature; no book or monograph, he says, can tell him the true colour of a dandelion seen in reality. In numerical comparison with the facts of nature, there are “no books; the books are yet to be written”. “Man’s mind is the most important fact with which we are yet acquainted,” he concludes.

In 1926, W. H. Hudson agreed that books appeared inadequate when set against the “minute history” of even a single bird species. He imagined a young boy who has read “a dozen long histories” of a given species. On going out to watch the bird for himself, he is amazed and indignant to find how much of what he sees was not mentioned in the books he studied.

“The reflection will follow that there must be a limit to the things that can be recorded,” Hudson notes; “that the life-history of a bird cannot be contained in any book, however voluminous it may be; and, finally, that books have quite a different object from the one he had imagined. And in the end he will be more than content that it should be so.”

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