New Humanist essay: The Cult Of Nature Writing

They are haunted by visions. They are visited by strange dreams. They are – like Muhammad on Jabal al-Nour and George Fox on Pendle Hill – vouchsafed revelations in high places. They are the nature writers, and they bring us wisdom from the wilderness.

The question is, why do we listen to them?

Books on nature and landscape follow fashion, just like everything else. At present, the dominant mode is the transcendental: muddy-booted birdwatchers are out, and high-minded Emersonians are in. Arguments from authority – the lab smarts of the ecologist or zoologist, the field knowhow of the naturalist – have lost their clout. The writer Melissa Harrison has made the case that “some experts forget that fostering a love of nature doesn’t start with facts and statistics, but stories and experience: things that engage our hearts and bodies as well as our minds.” Facts are less interesting than personal experience.

But this is not any old personal experience. It is, to all intents and purposes, religious experience.

“Now that most writers have taken deities out of the picture, we’re left with either the void or a search for some other centre of meaning,” says David George Haskell, author of The Forest Unseen. “The many stories of the universe from which we sprang provide one such center: transcendent power, inscrutable complexity, and humbling vastness. When we get a taste of these we’re inclined to preach the revelation to others. I see this move as directly parallel to the impulses underlying mystical religious writings. This parallelism results in not a convergence of language, but language flowing from the same source. And there’s nothing, in my view, wrong with that. I wish more people were enraptured by the mountains and songbirds.”

Haskell is a writer who can combine a kind of transcendentalism with a clear, human prose style. He also has a Cornell PhD in Ecology and Evolutionary Biology.

Others of those who come down to us from the mountain bearing strange writings might not have PhDs or years of hands-on experience, but that’s precisely the point – they don’t need those things, because they have something better. They speak with the voices of prophets.

“Few adult persons can see nature,” Ralph Waldo Emerson wrote in 1836. “Most persons do not see the sun. At least they have a very superficial seeing . . . There is a property in the horizon which no man has but he whose eye can integrate all the parts, that is, the poet.”

The godfather of modern nature writing, Roger Deakin, voiced the same sentiment in his book Notes From Walnut Tree Farm: “Looking, just looking, is all we have to do, to see the essential truth . . . As a naturalist you hope never to lose your virginity, always to be looking with wonder, to remain innocent, wide-eyed.”

If, as a Times article improbably averred, nature writing is the new rock ’n’ roll, we might think of this as a nod to Jimi Hendrix: “A musician, if he’s a messenger, is like a child who hasn’t been handled too many times by man, hasn’t had too many fingerprints across his brain.”

If he’s a messenger. If he (or she) is a precious golden nature-child. This is where “this landscape is special” can shade into “I am special” – an impression few modern nature writers seem to be at pains to correct.

Indeed, a good fistful of pages in any modern nature bestseller will very likely be dedicated to establishing the author’s credentials as a messenger. Why should I care what Philip Hoare has to say about whales? “Perhaps it is because I was nearly born underwater,” he muses in the opening line of his 2008 Samuel Johnson prizewinner Leviathan. What’s so special about Robert Macfarlane? “I could not now say when I first grew to love the wild,” he tells us, marvelling at himself, “only that I did, and that a need for it will always remain strong in me.” Then there are the dreams: “I am dreaming of the edge-land again,” reports Rob Cowen gravely in his acclaimed Common Ground.

The critic Ben Thompson has characterised this trend in modern non-fiction as the Bogus Quest Narrative (BQN). It is not sufficient for the BQN protagonist simply to write about their subject; they must be possessed by it, connected to it by a special bond (probably forged in childhood, or – even better – timeless, soul-deep and unfathomable). The hike to a mountain summit or the search for a rare bird is nothing so mundane as a hobby; it’s an Ahab-like pursuit of the ineffable.

The fact that the BQN in nature writing invariably gives the author a Romantic cast is by no means beside the point. Expressing an affinity for the sublime – rather than boring, bourgeois old beauty – has been shorthand for “I am mysterious and interesting” since the late 18th century.

We must be made to understand that, to the nature writer, a moor is more than just a moor, a sparrow so much more than just a sparrow, a dandelion a far grander thing than a mere dandelion. More often than not, this is effected through the adoption of weightily phrased pulpit prose (a lot of nature writers, like a lot of preachers, are the most atrocious hams). Macfarlane and Hoare are masters of this.

Haskell, on the other hand, deliberately backgrounds himself. “I want my readers to smell the gorgeous death-bouquet of leaf litter,” he says. “Then I can riff about the biological diversity that flares up from this decomposing plant matter. What I feel should, for me, be well in the background. But of course after a few chapters you know damn well what I feel, or don’t feel, because you’ve traveled in my head for a little while. Not slathering sentiment into a writing voice is itself a way of conveying a sentiment of respect for the ‘other’: I will not drown the tree or snail in my emotion, but try to perceive her-him for what she-he is.”

In many branches of science (which offer just as many pathways to the transcendental as nature study) popular writers generally try to counter an increase in a subject’s complexity with a corresponding shift into a more conversational or easy-to-read register. The alternative is to double down on the obscurity, and create something that may be powerful and evocative – may, indeed, be poetry – but isn’t very interested in explaining anything (“I have nothing to say/And I am saying it/And that is poetry/As I need it,” as John Cage wrote). I was recently commissioned to write a piece for a wildlife magazine: “Not nature writing,” the editor directed in his brief; “explain how it works.”

On accepting the National Book Award for The Sea Around Us in 1952, the marine biologist Rachel Carson said: “The winds, the sea, and the moving tides are what they are. If there is wonder and beauty and majesty in them, science will discover these qualities. If they are not there, science cannot create them. If there is poetry in my book about the sea, it is not because I deliberately put it there, but because no one could write truthfully about the sea and leave out the poetry.”

These are subtle distinctions. And besides, leaning towards obscurity may be an honest reflection of the writer’s priorities – after all, putting the personal ahead of the general is what novelists and poets do all the time. In the hands of pseudo-scientists it can be a ploy of deliberate obfuscation (concealing Chopra-ish nonsense within a shell of high-styled prose). But somewhere in between the two extremes is prose that is simply being worked too hard.

When highly articulate, highly educated, highly confident people experience intense emotion, books tend to happen. When we’re lucky, the book has a subject that is strong enough and fascinating enough to bear the weight of the prose; the content squeezes out the waffle. Where the subject is weak or ill-defined, we can consider ourselves less fortunate. For a long time, religion – inspiringly evocative and helpfully vague – was the topic of choice for such empty books; now, very often, it is nature. (It’s interesting to note, by the way, that while the Victorian heyday of popular nature writing was dominated by Anglican clergymen exploring the science of their subject, the big players in today’s scene are writers of a humanist bent pushing a transcendentalist angle.)

There is no doubt that many of the feelings triggered in us by nature are powerful, meaningful and worthy of contemplation. In a piece for the Guardian earlier this year, George Monbiot quoted the environmental journalist Michael McCarthy: “When we are close to nature, we sometimes find ourselves, as Christians put it, surprised by joy: ‘A happiness with an overtone of something more, which we might term an elevated or, indeed, a spiritual quality’.” To those of us who deny the divine origin of such feelings, they are pretty much as close to religious experiences as you can get.

They’re worth having. Whether they’re worth writing so many books about, though, is another question. If you want to prioritise personal experience, the best way might be to have some of your own. Go birdwatching or bug-hunting; take a hike. Experiences of this kind shouldn’t require the mediation of a prophet. Write a book about it if you like, but – and this is important – remember that it’s not obligatory.

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