Over the past few years, the genre of ‘nature writing’ has seen a new sense of urgency, fostered by a growing awareness of a natural world under pressure. Dr Robert Macfarlane, from the University of Cambridge, Faculty of English, believes that writers have played, and continue to play, a central role in conservation by engaging our hearts and our minds.
Last November a new word – “scrattling” – emerged briefly into the world. The journalist Mark Cocker, a regular contributor to The Guardian’s Country Diary column, coined it to describe the sound made by starlings settling down to roost overnight in his roof in rural Norfolk. Cocker talks about the wild “excess of energy” in the arching movements of a flock of starlings and the “grey, clamped-down stillness” of November. In focusing on his own delight in the ebb and flow of a flock of birds in the darkening sky, he expresses something universal about our inmost connectedness with nature.
Country Diary has long been a tiny island of nature writing, taking readers away from their homes, trains and offices to the wilder and less-trammelled spaces of moor and mountain, coombe and common, wilderness and wasteland. There was even a sense that those who wrote for this slot and others like it were an endangered species, donning their boots to tramp back into a landscape that no longer held any relevance for most of us.
Not any more. Prompted largely by a growing awareness of a world under threat, a steady resurgence in forms of ‘new nature writing’ has been seen during the part decade. The human population is expanding and limited natural resources are under pressure; scientists recording the numbers and diversity of flora and fauna show us that precious habitats are being lost and vulnerable species driven to extinction. Nature writing is succoured by accurate description, while at the same time draws attention to large-scale environmental crises and local losses. It is driven by a sense of purpose that gives it an important role within modern conservation, informing us in ways that are both factual and emotionally affecting.
How literature shapes, and is shaped by, our awareness of nature – and how this awareness, or the lack of it, intersects with our behaviour – is central to the research and writing of Cambridge academic Dr Robert Macfarlane, who has made a substantial contribution to placing nature writing centre stage of recent environmental discussions in this country. His work explores the traditions of British, Irish and North American literatures that deal with nature and its relationship with humankind – from the late 18th century through to the present day. His research is located within the lively interdisciplinary field known as ‘cultural environmentalism’, which considers the ways in which not only literature but also sculpture, dance, film and music might influence ecological awareness and environmental activism.
“Literature is just one of the cultural forms that shape our place-consciousness, and that carry out particular kinds of thinking about how we fit within the biosphere,” he explained. “The sculptures of Richard Long and Andy Goldsworthy, and the scripts of the latest blue-chip David Attenborough nature documentaries also bear upon the ways we treat that web of species, interrelations, co-dependencies and chemicals that we have relatively recently come to know by the group-noun ‘environment’. ”
Increasing specialism within the conventional British education system has often set science and literature at opposite ends of a spectrum. In his teaching and research, and as the author of two highly acclaimed books of nature/travel writing (Mountains of the Mind, 2003; The Wild Places, 2007; and a third, The Old Ways, to be published in 2012), Macfarlane is keen to reconcile the two broad areas. Talking about his respect for conservationists, he quotes the poet W.H. Auden: “When I find myself in the company of scientists, I feel like a shabby curate who has strayed by mistake into a drawing-room full of dukes.” He is eager, however, to highlight the role that literature has played in the history of environmentalism.
“Whenever I ask professional conservationists what first inspired them to get involved in the protection of the environment, they invariably mention either a book or a place,” he said. “The experiences of reading, or the physical effects of being in the landscape – of being exposed to the elements and feeling the land underfoot or under-hand – have proved profoundly influential for so many environmental policy makers and researchers. Nature writing has, in the past, been cartooned variously as reactionary ruralist or as sentimentalist. But, in many ways, and for many people, it’s been decisively life-shaping.”
Our everyday discourse is rich with metaphors and similes taken from earth, sea and sky – from the subtext of individual sounds in words to the grandest panoramas of desert and wilderness that have become symbols of states of mind. We live increasingly in cities, yet some of our greatest literature draws on nature not just as backdrop but also as active agent, shaping character, behaviour and morality. The classics of children’s literature, in particular, use wetlands and waterways, farm and forest as the settings and atmospheres for powerful characters and narratives.
Yet what we love, and what feeds us both literally and metaphorically, we also destroy. It is in drawing attention to the vulnerability of the natural world to greedy humanity that nature writers can play a role, believes Macfarlane: “Wendell Berry, the American farmer and essayist who is too little known in America, let alone in this country, once wrote that environmentally we require not ‘the piecemeal technological solutions that our society now offers, but … a change of cultural (and economic) values that will encourage in the whole population the necessary respect, restraint, and care.’ I’m interested in how literature might have urged, or at least have tried to urge, such changes.”
“Every now and then,” he continued, “the imaginary forms of literature feed back into the lived world with startling consequence. They assume real-world agency in ways that exceed the cliché of ‘life imitating art’. In terms of environmental history, I think of John Muir, who took himself off to become a shepherd in the Sierra Nevada and whose essays became crucial in determining the national-parks policy of Theodore Roosevelt. Or I think of the thunderclap publication of Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring (1962), which led to the banning of DDT in the US and arguably stimulated the creation in 1970 of the State Environmental Protection Agency. And then there’s the vast and as-yet-unmapped influence of Cormac McCarthy’s The Road (2006), a novel that chills its readers to their cores, and which the campaigner George Monbiot described as the most important environmental book ever written.”
Macfarlane has been working hard to bring lost or neglected works from the nature writing tradition back to light, and to introduce them to new generations of readers. He has written essays to accompany reissues of books by W.H. Hudson, Edward Thomas, Nan Shepherd, J.A. Baker and John Stewart Collis, among others. Next year, HarperCollins will reissue works by Jacquetta Hawkes (A Land), Richard Jefferies (Nature Near London) and Hudson (Adventures Among Birds); all three will carry introductions by Macfarlane, who added: “Over the past five or six years I’ve become addicted to digging into the ‘lost decades’ of 20th-century British nature/topographic writing. I feel passionate about championing writing which I feel might change its readers’ relationship with nature.”
Next year an opera with music by the jazz double-bassist Arnie Somogyi and with a libretto by Macfarlane will be performed on Orford Ness, a vast offshore shingle spit on the Suffolk coast that is both ecologically and historically unique. The opera has been part-commissioned by the National Trust, which owns the Ness and is keen to explore artistic responses to this extraordinary landscape. For Macfarlane, it’s an opportunity to bring culture and environment together in a thoroughly unacademic fashion, and to create, with Somogyi, an artistic form that will be responsive to the character of the landscape. What Macfarlane and Somogyi find most fascinating and suggestive about the terrain is how the lean and tapering shape of Orford Ness is constantly shifted and reformed by time and tide – a scaled-up, slowed-down, stone-and-water version of the wild wheeling arc of starlings in the sky.