‘Bearing Witness’: Reflections on the Launch of the UK’s Favourite Nature Books Poll by Pippa Marland

Some of the most popular and respected nature writers in the UK have been helping us to launch the Land Lines public poll to find the UK’s favourite books about nature: Mark Cocker wrote a piece for BBC Wildlife Magazine; Helen Macdonald and Esther Woolfson spoke to the BBC Radio 4 Today programme about their nature-writing influences; and Robert Macfarlane joined Chris Packham and Michaela Strachan to promote the poll on Autumnwatch, appearing in and narrating a short film about a book that has been a particularly powerful inspiration for his own writing: J. A. Baker’s The Peregrine (1967). Taken together, these pieces have helpfully brought into focus some of the best qualities of nature writing, as well as highlighting certain questions and conflicts that surround its production and consumption.

The work of nature writing that has spoken most significantly to Helen Macdonald in her adult life is Gilbert White’s devoted study of a Hampshire village, The Natural History of Selborne (1789). She admires White for the way in which his work ‘explains, even to a very modern audience, how to look upon the natural world with detached analysis and delight’. While, as Mark Cocker notes, the term nature writing is ‘devilishly difficult to pin down’, he sees Gilbert White as the first exponent of the modern genre, and, indeed, White’s book marks the starting point for the Land Lines study of British nature writing. For Cocker, White’s ‘warmth and personalised manner’, in tandem with his meticulous observations – or in Macdonald’s words, his combination of ‘delight’ and ‘analysis’ – establish a tonal template that is ‘one of his great gifts to all those writers who have come afterwards’. Thus begins a tradition of non-fiction prose writing in the UK that continues to the present day, as new generations of writers variously adopt, scrutinise, extend and/or flout its conventions.

Esther Woolfson’s choice is a much later work – Nan Shepherd’s glorious paean to the Cairngorms, The Living Mountain, which was largely written during the closing years of the Second World War but not published until 1977. Like White’s study of Selborne, the writing involves the intimate observation of a particular location combined with a degree of personal reflection, in a style that holds the two elements in careful balance. It can also be seen as evidence of a development in the literary reach of prose nature writing. It shares with J. A. Baker’s The Peregrine, published ten years earlier, a peculiar intensity of language and a marked poetic flair: qualities Macfarlane identifies appreciatively as forms of ‘generic disobedience’. Woolfson says that she responded to Shepherd’s work above all ‘because it was just a very beautiful and natural book which encouraged me to think about the world around me’.

Woolfson’s comment that Shepherd ‘encouraged [her] to think’ about her environment is telling, as is Macdonald’s assertion that White shows us how to ‘look upon’ the natural world. For both Woolfson and Macdonald, it is evident that one of the features of the best nature writing is its ability to move beyond the printed page, potentially directing and enhancing its readers’ understanding of and attitude towards the world we inhabit. This is a feature which is also emerging in other areas of our research. Before the poll began, we canvassed people in the public eye who are involved with the environment and wildlife in a variety of ways, and asked them to nominate their favourite nature book (you can see the nominations in full in an earlier blog entry on this site). From the responses, it is clear that childhood reading can have an immense impact on an individual’s feeling for nature. Phrases such as ‘when I was seven’, ‘at the age of six or seven’, ‘when I was growing up’, and ‘when I was twelve’ pepper the nominations. Virginia McKenna’s choice is a book she first read 80 years ago, but it is one that has continued to enrich her appreciation of the natural world: Kenneth Grahame’s The Wind in the Willows (1908).

These childhood favourites are credited with initiating and fostering a love of the natural world that has grown and developed with the readers themselves, and while it’s hard to quantify this phenomenon without further research, it appears that people engaged in working to conserve nature and to promote an appreciation of its inherent value very often have a childhood literary inspiration behind their work, even if they might later return with a more critical eye to these initial literary enthusiasms. Helen Macdonald, for example, describes her early love of ‘books about boys going out to collect animals for zoos’, which were entertaining reading for a small child and undoubtedly encouraged her delight in nature, but they have been replaced by more considered choices in adulthood. What these childhood reminiscences do bring to light is the idea that nature writing has the power to stimulate a lasting sense of relationship with the natural world.

Macfarlane, too, identifies a book which, when he first read it twenty five years ago, ‘changed the way [he] saw the world’. In his celebratory film about The Peregrine, he speaks about the way in which J. A. Baker’s evocation of Essex transformed the southern English landscape for him: ‘his words re-wilded my everyday world’. It is above all, according to Macfarlane, the extraordinary prose style of the book that so powerfully ignites the imagination, and conjures up for the reader the fascinating species to which Baker devoted his life: ‘like the peregrines themselves, Baker’s sentences stoop, swerve and shock’. For Macfarlane, then, the craft of the nature writer is not to dress the environment in fine words, which might – as Cocker has argued – actually push it further from our understanding, but to perform a more-than-mimetic alchemy, affording us an exhilarating sense of what it is like to encounter a particular element of the natural world.

There are, of course, some difficult questions involved in the discussion of nature and nature writing. Notwithstanding the existence of the real, physical world in which we live, ‘nature’ is always something of a cultural construct, which, over time, has meant different things to different societies and civilisations, and which has rendered the accurate representation of the natural world a vexed and difficult business. In Western thought nature has tended to be envisioned, to its detriment, as something separate from the human, accorded on the one hand an elevated aesthetic status and on the other denigrated as merely a resource to be exploited. Some contemporary nature writing can be credited with fiercely challenging those divisive constructs. Cocker, for example, draws our attention to Kathleen Jamie’s determination to move beyond the sublime and the enchanting in order to scrutinise not just the nature which exists all around us, even in the most mundane situations, but also the nature inside the human body, whose workings, as she writes, ‘sometimes […] go awry’. He lauds her willingness to confront not only our integral involvement in nature but also its darker manifestations.

There are other troubling issues, to which Cocker also alludes. Debates have long been in play about the character and demographic of nature writing in the UK, and in recent years these have sporadically flared up in heated exchanges between journalists, nature writers and academics. Questions revolve around the notion that nature writing (even in its arguably ‘new’ articulations) may be a heritage form, reliant on outmoded pastoral tropes, lacking in content when it comes to addressing the social and political histories of the landscapes it describes, and generally under-informed in terms of its scientific knowledge. It has also traditionally been associated with white, leisured masculinity. In his article, Cocker cites Jason Cowley’s observation that, historically, the prevailing image of a nature writer was ‘always […] a man; bearded, badly dressed, ascetic, misanthropic’; one might add ‘Caucasian’ and ‘middle class’ to the list.

The Land Lines project will scrutinise these debates carefully and in detail throughout the course of its research. For Cocker, though, the situation is changing: ‘Not everything in nature writing, however, is owed to the past. One significant achievement of the new flood of books is to create more diversity among authors in terms of their identity, gender, age, and social background’. There is undoubtedly further to go in this respect, not least in relation to the apparent lack of published non-fiction prose nature writing by black and minority ethnic writers. But it is clear that the contemporary nature writing scene has witnessed a significant increase in the presence of popular and influential female authors, including Kathleen Jamie, Amy Liptrot, Jay Griffiths, Helen Macdonald, Esther Woolfson, Katharine Norbury, and Miriam Darlington, to name but a few. Moreover, according to Cocker, ‘The nature writer is now as likely to be a working-class resident of the city as the more traditional countryman’.

There is another major question – again, one identified by Cocker in his provocative and far-reaching analysis – which continues to cast a shadow over the contemporary flourishing of nature writing.  How do we square this burgeoning of nature books, these ‘secondary products’ about the natural world, with the ongoing and catastrophic decline of wildlife and wildlife habitats in the UK? Is there a sense that this plethora of new nature writing might be playing a consolatory or even escapist role in the face of the radically diminished biodiversity of these islands? Or that, even when it does articulate feelings of loss and anger engendered by the evidence of environmental destruction all around us, it struggles to comment on how the situation might be ameliorated? Given the statistics, it’s perhaps hard to see how nature writing might be anything other than an elegy for the disappeared and the disappearing, coming at a juncture the nature writer Michael McCarthy calls ‘a strange and terrible moment in history’.

According to both Woolfson and Macdonald, however, contemporary nature writing is a ‘political’ form, fully engaged with the issues of our time, including climate change and rapidly diminishing wildlife numbers. ‘We’re writing’, says Macdonald in the Today programme interview, ‘to bear witness to what’s being lost’. Moreover, this bearing witness has the ability to encourage environmental praxis: Macdonald mentions anecdotally that her writing was credited by a reader with inspiring a change of career from retail to sustainability, and suggests that this kind of experience of real-world impact is common to many other nature writers. Macfarlane also expresses a cautious optimism about the power of the best writing to trigger shifts in the ways in which we understand nature, and to foster corresponding changes in our behaviour. In his view, Baker’s obsessive, visceral study of the peregrine falcon, whose numbers were plummeting at the time Baker was writing due to the use of pesticides such as DDT, ‘cannot be passively consumed; it surprises the eye, sticks in the craw, rakes the mind’. Macfarlane argues that the book offers a glimmer of hope, in that Baker’s peregrines didn’t become extinct, awareness of the birds’ predicament grew (at least in part as a result of The Peregrine’s impassioned advocacy), the use of pesticides was restricted, and peregrine numbers began to rise again. ‘Baker shows us,’ says Macfarlane, ‘that the best writing about the natural world isn’t dustily out of date. It’s urgent, vital, powerful; it’s hard-wired into the wonder of wild nature. It works through beauty and through anger to change the world and change the way we see it’.

Even more encouragingly for Macfarlane, who has done so much over the past fifteen or more years to foster wide-ranging cultural engagement with nature, the trend is part of a much larger pattern. As he writes in The New Statesman, we’re seeing an unprecedented surge of interest in the natural world, not just through literature, but through a whole range of cultural articulations: ‘In nurseries and universities, apiaries and allotments, transition towns and theatres, woodlands and festivals, charities and campaigns – and in photography, film, music, the visual and plastic arts and throughout literature […] A 21st-century culture of nature has sprung up’.

We hope that through our analysis of the history of nature writing in the UK, along with the events we are organising over the next 18 months, the Land Lines project will be able to participate in this remarkable turn, adding its voice to the growing band of individuals and organisations in the UK and around the world who wish to ‘speak a word for nature’. The poll is gathering momentum, with over 600 nominations already received as I write. While the Land Lines project is restricting itself to the study of non-fiction prose, we recognise that writing about the natural world can take many forms, and the poll is open to all genres of literature which the public identify as nature writing: factual field guides, children’s books, novels, poetry, biographies, autobiographies, travel writing, and those forms which defy generic definition but which undoubtedly engage with nature (a personal favourite of mine that falls into this category is W. G. Sebald’s The Rings of Saturn). And while it will be fascinating to see which works emerge as the UK’s favourites, the ways in which people explain their choices will be just as interesting and important to us. The poll will, we hope, provide us with a snapshot of what nature writing means to us in the second decade of the 21st century, as we face the challenges posed by a degraded and beleaguered natural world.

This blog entry is reproduced from https://landlinesproject.wordpress.com/blog/

The poll to find the UK’s favourite books about nature will be open until the 30th November. You can make your nomination here: http://www.ahrc.ac.uk/favouritenaturebooks/.


DR PIPPA MARLAND is a Research Fellow at the University of Leeds and an editor of The Clearing magazine.

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