Mark Cocker has called the recent expansion of “new nature writing” ‘among the most significant developments in British publishing this century’. Further, he claims that, whilst the audience is probably bigger than ever before, the presence of ‘real nature’ is perhaps less cogent. Generally, I agree. In a recent article in the New Statesman (one which I particularly enjoyed reading – I like it when articles mention writers and books/articles that you haven’t come across before so the reference leads on to other references and your voyage of discovery can continue) Cocker assessed the influence of publications such as Helen Macdonald’s ‘H Is for Hawk’ and Robert Macfarlane’s ‘The Wild Places’. He looked at the influences of Richard Mabey, Kenneth Allsop and Ronald Blythe and tried to understand why writing about the complexities between nature and culture has come to be largely replaced by the more specific tools of illustrating landscape and analysing literature. Cocker calls for nature writers to return to the tangibility of their subject, emphasising the ‘real’ more than, or at least as much as, the ‘imagined’ space. Cocker also suggests that nature writing should not ignore the grand narrative of our times – being the decline in abundance and diversity of species across the British Isles.
Cocker writes that we should ‘navigate between joy and anxiety’ when writing about the natural world. This is exactly the narrative that conservationists, environmentalists and nature writers should be professing. There is a lot to be proud of in the conservation sector but the trends are worrying and neo-romanticism from nature writers does not help in alleviating the situation. Nature writing should at least recognise the problems we face in terms of land management but also land equity, by which I mean the set of established power relations that govern how land is managed, who can access it and how it can be accessed. Nature should never be relegated to the background but I disagree with Cocker that it should not be a place to ‘talk to ourselves about ourselves’. Nature writing provides a perfect opportunity to discuss a whole host of issues surrounding the relationship between nature and culture, especially understanding who it is that is concerned about the natural world, who isn’t and who ‘shouts loudest’. As a white, upper middle class male I fit neatly in to the profile that Kathleen Jamie, quoted by Cocker in his article, has highlighted:
What’s that coming over the hill? A white, middle-class Englishman! A Lone Enraptured Male! From Cambridge! Here to boldly go, “discovering”, then quelling our harsh and lovely and sometimes difficult land with his civilised lyrical words.
I may not be from Cambridge (although I know of some who fit this description perfectly) but otherwise I count myself amongst this brief. Those who ‘shout loudest’ generally have a background which has encouraged them to ‘shout’. This is obviously not always the case – and I am one of the first to shout when somebody makes gross generalisations – but it would not be a widely acknowledged statement of affairs were there not some truth behind it. Whether we like it or not ‘nature’ in Britain is part of a cultural web and is managed, mismanaged, appreciated and unappreciated through our own cultural paradigm. We cannot remove culture from nature. Similarly, the influences of the natural world, as well as the fact that we are reliant upon it for our own survival as a species, cannot be removed from culture. My own environmental history training has taught me to never forget that when writing about aspects of the ‘natural world’, a term that has complex implications all by itself, ‘nature’ must be placed, as much as possible, at the centre of the discussion, as the subject, not merely an object to be bounced around in a discussion about people. Agency of nature is critical and the implications of avoiding it lean towards prose that lacks holism. ‘New nature writing’ should not ignore the opportunities that literature can provide but it should be part of a broader toolkit, encompassing a style that embraces the natural world itself, stands up for equilibrium and is honest about the grave situation we face.