The Fence essay: State Of Nature

This essay was first published by The Fence in December, 2020.

Something is wrong in the Robert Macfarlane Extended Universe, also known as the genre of nature writing. I’m not the first to notice. A few years back, Mark Cocker fretted that books on nature had become ‘a literature of consolation’, that writers in the field (so to speak) had become disengaged from the realities of wild landscapes. From a different direction, Steven Poole derided the bourgeois escapism of it all (nostalgie de la boue, ‘nostalgia for the mud’, of a kind with north London farmers’ markets). Most fiercely, Joe Kennedy went after the genre’s ‘cookie-cutter poetics of belonging and self-care’ and – significantly – its ‘often-bad writing’.

Can I shock you? I like nature writing. I can’t go along with political dismissals of the genre: it’s too big and wide for that, even in its present denuded state. When it’s done well – and it sometimes is, we’ll get to that eventually – it’s a rich, exciting, even exhilarating form. But the quality of writing matters, and not just to wincing literary aesthetes handling Granta 102: The New Nature Writing disdainfully, with a pair of tongs.

I maintain, not without some fondness, a small but ever-growing file of ridiculous lines thrown out by nature writers. ‘How does the terminology of beekeeping diminish a symbiosis?’; ‘Every place is unique. Did Thoreau say that? I seem to think so, but I can’t remember where and perhaps I am mistaken’; ‘I don’t operate a mobile phone, or wear a watch. I cycle, like the boy I was’; ‘Furious falls the rain like a snappy tantrum, a fit thrown by the whims of time’; ‘all elsewhere is milk’; the entirety of Paul Kingsnorth’s Arcadia essay (‘What if the truth is in the soil?’).

Writing is voice. Voice is character. Character matters. Nature writing is a chorus of many voices – even as it is, the genre encompasses Natasha Carthew, founder of the Working Class Writers’ Festival, and Adam Nicolson, 5th Baron Carnock. Yet at present one note dominates.

This note is best understood through the I, the first person, specifically the first-person present tense. This style is used in modern nature writing like an in-crowd’s dress code, signifying at a glance that this is that sort of nature writing: personal, lyrical, dressed with multiple gushing blurbs and longlisted for the Wainwright Prize. And so – to grab a fistful at random – ‘as I look out of the back window, I see the shattered rooms of a former dwelling’ (Richard Skelton, Beyond the Fell Wall); ‘the fog fills the moment and I walk towards it, into it, yet never quite reaching it’ (Benjamin Myers, Under The Rock); ‘I watch the geometry of winter trees’ (Paul Evans, the essay Shrewsbury to Crewe).

The form probably owes its preponderance to the lasting influence of the diary or almanac format. Gilbert White recorded the natural history of Selborne in dated letters, not a diary, and wrote about himself in the past tense, like a normal person. But he may nevertheless be partly to blame. A more immediate influence is – inevitably – J A Baker and The Peregrine (‘my diary of a single winter’ [sic]). Writers as various as Chris Ferris in The Darkness is Light Enough, David George Haskell in The Forest Unseen, Terry Tempest Williams in Refuge and of course Dara McAnulty, the 16-year-old winner of this year’s Wainwright, have since made use of the diary form (or something like it: in place of dates, Tempest Williams uses the water level of the Great Salt Lake).

The first-person present (fpp) is a natural fit for the form (we use it as standard in the Guardian’s daily Country Diary column). Now though, like a rose-ringed parakeet, it’s broken out, and has become ubiquitous. Five of the seven books on the 2020 Wainwright shortlist use it (five and a half really, as it comes and goes in Mike Parker’s On the Red Hill), as do the winners from 2015, 2016 and 2019, plus a celebrated runner-up from 2016, Rob Cowen’s Common Ground. In an unsparing review of that book, Anita Roy identified the fpp as one of Cowen’s principal problems: ‘There’s no register so prone to pompous self-regard – and there’s really only so much “I”-ing a girl can take.’

The first-person present lends additional weight and phantom significance to the author’s every action (it’s like a blanket deployment of the hammy trick of finishing a chapter on a single, otherwise unremarkable sentence – itself a familiar feature in our genre, especially in the post-David Peace northern gothic subdivision). It can be used well. Helen Jukes, Stephen Rutt and Horatio Clare are among those who have used it well: conversationally, easily, encouraging immersion and friendly intimacy. But used badly, as it usually is, it’s an inflationary measure: declamatory, portentous, puffed-up. Common Ground ends with an acknowledgments page in which the author thanks, among many others, Thomas Hardy, T S Eliot, Alan Bennett and Philip Larkin, ‘in whose footsteps I humbly follow’. Oh, the humility!

It’s another way of striking a pose. Strike a pose with a forest or a field for a backcloth and see if you can hold it for 200-odd pages – that’s how too much modern nature writing gets written. The pose is sometimes literal: an aspirational, filtered snapshot of The Author In His Element, as spontaneous and real as an Instagrammed brunch. The pose can be ideological or, most often, emotional. Macfarlane’s opening to The Wild Places remains the benchmark here: ‘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.’ I’ve always imagined that if you could walk around to the other side of Caspar David Friedrich’s Wanderer above the Sea of Fog, it’s Macfarlane’s face you would see staring back at you, clear-eyed, mildly smiling, looking out and ever beyond you at the Wild, whatever that is.

I would hate to be misread here. Love – or fondness, or enthusiasm, or fascination – for nature is a good thing. I am for it. What’s less good is to so visibly and vainly love that you love it; to be so transparently pleased with yourself for loving it. This is a genre stuffed with writers who have a wonderful ear for the music of language but a tin ear for tone.

I don’t, unlike some critics, object in principle to nature writing that is partly or even largely about the nature writer rather than the nature. It’s true that on my first encounter with writing of this kind, Philip Hoare’s Leviathan, I was a little thrown to find a fascinating book on whales interleaved (an error at the printshop?) with a far less fascinating booklet about Philip Hoare. But we are fundamentally inseparable from the non-human among which we live, and our responses to wild things are a valid theme. Please, show me how the writer’s personal connection with wildlife and landscape speaks to something in us all – something complex, elusive, contradictory, interesting. Please do not show me that the writer is a precious son of the mountain who still, humbly yet magically, looks upon the meanest works of nature with a child’s gaze. Please do not tell me, again, that you have been for a swim in the sea, and it was dark, and the sky was large, and you were small, o so small (‘Well, I mean to say,’ Bertie Wooster remarks at one point, ‘when a girl suddenly asks you out of a blue sky if you don’t sometimes feel that the stars are God’s daisy-chain, you begin to think a bit’). I mock, but it’s so hard not to, and I dearly wish more people would.

Here’s a typical Macfarlane forest scene, keeping company with the young mycologist Merlin Sheldrake, an accomplished naturalist I’m sure, but rendered here as a sort of Tom Bombadil figure. ‘The fire works its magic of storytelling and conviviality … Merlin and I tell some of our day’s understories … A young man whose nickname is “the Hand Owl” plays bluegrass on his cupped hands alone, hooting and whooping.’ It reminds me a little of Woody Allen’s pastiche A Twenties Memory: ‘Hemingway waxed lyrical on death and adventure as only he could, and when we awoke he had pitched camp…’

There are lots – I won’t say no shortage – of writers who are, I think doing it right. I should be clear that I don’t believe nature writing must take this or that form, or must only be written by writers with x qualifications or y experience, or must be written in any particular voice or style. On the contrary, nature writing, if it’s to be for anyone, must be for everyone. So in what sense are these writers getting it right? What I’m asking for, really, isn’t much. A recent poem by Tanya Shadrick set out some things that the nature writer ought to be doing – ‘Rise like a farmer at five’, ‘eat with your whole concentration on eating’, ‘chew as cows do’, ‘stay out all day’ – which was a very good fit for the way in which many nature writers see themselves: pursuing a vocation to which they were called, rather than writing about something they’re interested in or – heavens! – doing a job.

I ask for far less. Honesty, first and foremost. An honest writer, if they have the skill to express themselves precisely, will be an original writer, and that’s half the battle won. At present the genre is mired in cliché. Not linguistic cliché – practically every modern nature writer can turn out a bespoke bit of baroque description when the occasion demands, and even when it doesn’t – but clichéd ideas, views, values, a hackneyed aesthetic, ways of thinking which have become stultifyingly familiar.

Diversity – up to a point – is coming, belatedly, to nature writing. It’s appalling on more than one level that it took until this year for the Wainwright Prize to shortlist its first writer of colour, Jini Reddy for Wanderland (you would imagine that this desperate shortfall would be replicated in take-up by agents and publishers, publisher marketing budgets, column inches in the review pages – I don’t think this is all on the Wainwright). A good deal of credit has to go to Robert Macfarlane for part-funding the Willowherb Review, a journal for nature writing by non-white writers (though of course far more credit goes to the journal’s founding editor, Jessica J. Lee) . Change is surely coming in the Willowherb’s wake, but – at risk of embodying a Twitter meme (‘Be more diverse! No, not like that’) – my concern is that the much-needed new nature writers, writers from outside the white, middle-class mainstream, will be made to feel that the way ahead lies in revisiting the old themes, rewriting (O Christ, again) the old books in the same old style. New voices should be granted the freedom to be exactly that – new voices, not just new writers talking in the same old monotone.

It’s a little fanciful to see the nature writing scene as an ecosystem but, given that nature writers are to a degree tied into their personal geographies, that their work is locked into the habitats they know, it does make a sort of sense. Besides, I find it exciting to do so – to scan the landscape, and know that here, here, here, the good writers are turning over the earth, doing the good work. Jon Dunn on Shetland. Zakiya Mckenzie in Bristol. Luke Turner, tramping the Epping Forest, queering histories natural and otherwise. The poet Polly Atkin reframing landscape and scale in the Lakes. Tim Dee, our greatest prose writer on wild things, migratory between England and the Cape. Esther Woolfson in Aberdeen, Helen Macdonald in Suffolk (twin intellects almost, formidable, deeply read and wide-thinking, unalike in style, always among birds: hawks, rooks, parrots, crows). In the east of England Mark Cocker and Richard Mabey toil on, surely knackered, always again finding inspiration. There are more, of course. There aren’t enough.

The world of wild things is subtle, deep, contradictory, fearsome, beautiful, challenging, endlessly dynamic, critically vulnerable. Writing about this world is an opportunity and a responsibility. Homily, waffle and ham-­acting won’t do. A lot of writing on nature now gives me the sense of an elaborate shell, built – not without care – around a fragile organism. The shell might be splendid, to some eyes, but it’s not much good to anyone if the thing inside is dead. Nature writing, whatever form it takes, must have at its heart an honest and human engagement with nature. Otherwise it’s just an empty shell, in which some people will still swear you can hear the sea.

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