The countryside is full of writers walking so they can write a book. (Iain Sinclair)
Reading (or writing) about nature is not really my thing, unless it tips over into wilderness – I’m more into grit and quirk than the elegiac. In Art in the countryside Charlotte Higgins quotes Robert Macfarlane: “the new nature writing…is distinguished by its mix of memoir and lyricism, and specialises in delicacy of thought and precision of observation”. See the Summer 2008 Granta issue. But is there more than a touch of bourgeois escapism in the new nature writing? See Richard Mabey’s riposte.
The new nature pack is led by Robert Macfarlane, who I have dipped in and out of. I read Mountains of the mind (2003) in 2008, and
I’ve got about half way through The old ways (2012) finished! Holloway (2013; review) looks lovely, and he’s also recently written Environment: new words on the wild, an article in Nature (13 June 2013, paywall).
Another prominent proponent is Kathleen Jamie, primarily a poet, with Findings (2005) and Sightlines (2012). I’ve read her 1992 travel book The Golden Peak: travels in North Pakistan. A bit off topic there.
New to me is Olivia Laing, who is branching out into urban and finds the same trend in nature writing, highlighting three examples. Her first book, To the river (2011), is the story of the river Ouse, in which Virginia Woolf drowned in 1941. See her Sussex Downs Great British Walk and article on dropping out and living in a bender.
Bypassing The trip to Echo Spring: why writers drink (2013; review), she’s now working on The lonely city, a cultural history of urban loneliness centred on Manhattan – see The lonely city (The Junket, 2012) and Me lonely in Manhattan (Aeon, 2012; Note to self, revisit long form.). She also reviews some corkers, eg Sara Maitland’s Gossip from the forest (2012).
All these people review each other, it’s quite a glimpse into the literati, and the whole thing feels like a bit of a merry go round – see eg Tim Dee’s Four fields (2013; interview), reviewed by Kathleen Jamie | Olivia Laing). He’s co-edited a bird book with Simon Armitage…
Let’s move on.
Update, May 2014: some additions to the canon include Cold blood: adventures with reptiles and amphibians (review), The moor: lives, landscape, literature (review | another | video) and Meadowland: the private life of an English field (Gdn | Observer). Plus we have Silt road: the story of a lost river. Vintage’s Shelf Help promotion read Richard Mabey’s Nature cure in April, and lists ten of the best nature books. Where will it end, and why does no one write about nature in Denmark/Danish? I’ve also had a go at the Guardian’s Country Diary – it sat in my feedreader for a week or so, but tm;dr.
New for 2015! Katherine Norbury’s The fish ladder (review): “a grief-stricken woman follows some of Britain’s most beautiful rivers in a journey into her own past but sometimes loses the flow”, Kathryn Hughes on how nature writing took over from travel writing and Hawks, butterflies, coasts and footpaths: how nature writing turned to literary gold. For a trans-Atlantic perspective, see The City and the Writer’s nature writer series. Latest trend: Eeriness – “explores the English landscape in terms of its anomalies rather than its continuities, that is sceptical of comfortable notions of ‘dwelling’ and ‘belonging’, and of the packagings of the past as ‘heritage’…an attempt to account for the turbulence of England in the era of late capitalism.” Plus the Twitter account: @NatureBookClub. Enuf!
17 June: Mark Cocker’s Death of the naturalist calls out the predominance of white, upper middle class men in the genre, the “lone enraptured male”, encompassing the notion of the nature writer as excursionist engaged in an exercise of remembrance with nature and culture replaced by landscape and literature as chief concerns. Fair do’s, but here’s the riposte, and so it goes on…and on, with Robert Macfarlane’s reply on 2 September.
Apotheosis or top of the hype cycle?I give you NiddFest, the nature writing festival. For an academic take see European new nature writing (Ecozona 6(1) 2015) and Twentieth-century nature writing in Britain and Ireland (Green Letters 17(1) 2013).
Summer 2016 and it’s still going…see Gary Budden’s interviews with Rob Cowen and Nina Lyons (“‘you know what? I‘m just bashing out 300 words of place description here for no good reason’”). Peak nature writing arrives in May 2017, with The new nature writing book.