Jay Griffiths, George Monbiot, Sylvain Tesson and Philip Hoare: How pastoral writing is being redefined
You have to go back in time a long way to find pastoral writing that doesn't mourn the shrinking diversity in our wild places. The pastoral has given was to new "nature writers". If they were put in charge of the countryside, these islands would become a much more interesting place to live.
The English pastoral tradition loves a dying fall. You have to go back almost as far as the Elizabethans to find an author happy to describe the bank where the wild thyme grows without simultaneously lamenting the decline in diversity of the species that populate the sylvan tuffet.
From Gerard Manley Hopkins, grieving the loss of Binsey Poplars – “My aspens dear, whose airy cages quelled,/Quelled or quenched in leaves the leaping sun,/All felled, felled, are all felled” – to Edward Thomas finding a ruined Eden among halfbuilt London suburbs where once stood trees and fields, an exquisite melancholy haunts British writers’ contemplation of their relationship with nature.
But why so sad? Cheerfulness is never, to be sure, a quality much associated with writers, but the distinctive note of prevailing regret that characterises our native pastoral writing lies deeper than mere individual temperament. Its roots are buried in those two GCSE staples: history and geography.
In a populous small island, with fertile soil perfectly adapted for agriculture, and the rich mineral deposits whose inevitable offspring are industrialisation and urbanisation, wildness – in the form of unadapted nature – very soon becomes a luxury: the jealously guarded preserve of the rich, the aspiration of the poor. It was true when John Clare wrote his great protest poems against enclosure; it is no less true almost two centuries later.
The English pastoral tradition has always coexisted with an equally forceful urban literary tradition. In the late 20th and early 21st centuries, the pastoral mode seemed all but eclipsed by the charm of the urban dystopia. Besides which, somewhere between the mass trespass on Kinder Scout in 1932 and the banning of hunting with dogs in 2004, a preoccupation with nature and the countryside lost its keen edge of radicalism and acquired a cacophony of unlucky overtones: political and emotional conservatism; arrogant landownership; the twee tea-room aesthetic of the National Trust with its ineffable range of shortbread, tea-towels and “conserves”; the darker confusions of the hunt and its peculiar misalliance of crusty peasantry and raucous aristocracy, united by their unspeakable enthusiasm for rioting across the countryside in pursuit of photogenic small creatures . . .
But the wheel turns and a new generation of writers have different things to say about nature; or perhaps the same things but expressed with a new urgency and a certain freshness of attack. Robert Macfarlane, Jay Griffiths and Philip Hoare, among others, have all brought a distinctive individual sensibility to what amounts, in effect, to a new school of nature writing.
Jay Griffiths’s book, Kith, sprang from the research for its award-winning predecessor, Wild, a rhapsodical journey around the world in search of the elusive quality of wildness. During seven years of research, in the course of which she visited communities from the Arctic to the Amazon, and also observed the lives of children in Britain, Griffiths became obsessed with “a difficult riddle”: why are so many children in Euro-American cultures unhappy? Why is it that children in many traditional cultures seem happier and more fluent in their child nature?
Almost before you can think, “Are they? Do they?” (the answer is yes and yes, according to a 2007 Unicef report on the wellbeing of children that placed the UK last in a list of 21 rich industrialised countries), she answers her own conundrum. “Nature is at the core of the riddle . . . Childhood has not only lost its country but the word for it too: a country called childhood.”
Griffiths’s contention is that “children are porous to nature”, in which they recognise what Wordsworth called “the nurse,/The guide, the guardian of my heart, and soul/Of all my moral being”. Disconnected from that essential attachment, Griffiths argues, children “know the essential, vital world is just out of reach, though the need to grasp at it is still with them, leaving them snatching at substitutes, perpetually dissatisfied, without quite knowing why”.
Like most of the authors reviewed here, Griffiths is a high romantic: “Childhood itself”, she argues, “is the quintessential Romanticism.” Her prose is characterised by an aphoristic turn of phrase: “children need circuses as they need bread”, an inclination to ecstatic lyricism and a certain high whimsy: “I met a forget-me-not on equal terms, as a child. We were introduced one afternoon in the garden. Its name was so understandable and so emotional . . . I was delirious for hours, finding that such a little thing, a child’s flower if ever there was one, had a voice, and a loud one – a voice which demanded never to be forgotten . . . ”
Griffiths is an aunt and a godmother but not a parent herself, which was probably the ideal perspective from which to write her richly expansive and occasionally wayward account of the essential connections between childhood and nature. With exceptional powers of observation and intellectual range, she retains the porousness to fantasy of a child. Sometimes this leads her into tricky terrain, as in her airy description of the training of child spiritual leaders of the Kogi people of Colombia. Immured in a cave as infants, they live in solitary confinement for nine years, with just enough light to see and just enough food to live, informed by their tribe of the existence of the outside world but never seeing it.
“It is hard from a western perspective not to view the treatment of these boys with great ambivalence”, writes Griffiths, swiftly obscuring the appalling reality of what she has just described with yet another torrent of ravishing prose (“The Kogi child in the cave . . . lives in the twilight world of intuition, shadow-languaged . . .”) Still, this isn’t meant to be a practical childcare manual – though just beneath the fantasia runs an admirable seam of humane good sense.
If Jay Griffiths were given the portfolio for children in some fantasy future government, and George Monbiot were made minister for the environment, these islands would become a much more interesting place to live. Griffiths wants children to explore nature freely – take risks, build dens, dam streams, light fires. So does Monbiot, but he also wants to repopulate our native woodlands with plants and creatures that he believes were once indigenous.
If you went down to the woods of the rewilded Britain proposed by Monbiot in his new book, Feral, you’d be likely to encounter great bustard, common crane, beaver, lynx, blue stag beetle and – crikey! What on earth is that crashing about in the undergrowth? – straight-tusked elephant. “I have seen no discussion about the introduction of elephants to Europe,” he remarks, “though I would like to start one.”
What you wouldn’t find in Monbiot’s Britain is sheep. Lord, how he loathes the woolly tribe! The close-cropped uplands that conservation bodies love to call “wilderness”, stripped of all vegetation by ovine nibbling, Monbiot calls “sheepwrecked”.
His passion for rewilding sprang from an apotheosis in his Welsh back garden. Turning up a cockchafer grub with his spade, he put it, as you do, in his mouth. “It was sweet, creamy, faintly smoky, like alpine butter; exquisite”, and it elicited a Proustian moment, transporting him not to Combray but to his days as a young eco-activist in Brazil, supporting the indigenous Yanomami people in their fight against the despoilation of their land by gold miners.
His Yanomami hosts shared their food with him: plantains, toadstools and writhing beetle grubs. Leaning on his spade in the raw Welsh winter, he was struck by the contrast between the elemental battles of years past and the smallness of his current life, “in which loading the dishwasher presented an interesting challenge . . . I was,” he concludes, “ecologically bored.”
He says it was not a spiritual experience he sought; nor had he the desire “to reconstruct – as if that were possible –primordial wilderness.” Rather, “I wanted only to satisfy my craving for a richer, rawer life than I had recently lived. It was only when I stumbled across an unfamiliar word that I began to understand what I was looking for.”
Rewilding, a useful neologism that first entered the dictionary in 2011, originally referred to the reintroduction of animal and plant species to habitats from which they had been excised. In Monbiot’s personal definition it means “resisting the urge to control nature and allowing it to find its own way . . . reintroducing absent plants and animals . . . pulling down the fences, blocking the drainage ditches, but otherwise stepping back”. It involves, too, the rewilding of human life – not a shedding of civilisation, “but an enhanced opportunity for people to engage with and delight in the natural world”.
All very reasonable so far, but where do the elephants come in? Monbiot has the visionary polemicist’s gift of pursuing an argument by gentle stages to a dazzlingly aspirational conclusion. His accounts of the ecological horrors perpetrated by sheep and the perverse defence of their depredations by assorted conservation bodies are not just persuasive but powerfully affecting.
He is brilliant, too, at presenting statistics in readable form, and on the adroitly irrefutable deployment of ancient historical evidence. As a reader, you may begin by protesting feebly: those bones of giant deer, aurochs, lions and straight-tusked elephants discovered in the 1830s beneath Trafalgar Square, had they just wandered out of the undergrowth and dropped dead there, or might they have arrived by some other means? But something about the charm and persistence of Monbiot’s argument has the hypnotic effect of a stoat beguiling a hapless rabbit. Soon you find yourself dazedly agreeing that it’s all a tremendous idea: yes to the elephants, the beavers and the lynx. Yes to the special collars to show if sheep are upset by the presence of a predator. And while we’re at it, why not the reintroduction of both wolves and wolf hunting? (“Licensed hunting in Sweden has gone some way towards making the wolf politically acceptable there.”)
Not that Monbiot himself is entirely immune to the seductions of nature: he may begin his book with sturdy declarations that he didn’t embark on his wild journey in pursuit of some kind of spiritual authenticity (“I do not find that a useful or intelligible concept”, he writes, Spockishly), but by degrees a certain heroic tone creeps in, with dashing accounts of near-death experiences in a kayak.
The notion of exploration as a great game, in which the gallant traveller sets off to penetrate the virgin wilderness, equipped with little more than a flask of brandy, a good cigar and a stout knobkerry has become rather unfashionable in this country (though is periodically revived by self-conscious eccentrics).
In France, however, it continues to thrive, on the evidence of Sylvain Tesson’s latest work. Tesson has toured the world by bicycle, crossed the Himalayas on foot, followed the route of gulag escapees by walking from Siberia to Calcutta. Consolations of the Forest, by contrast, is a record of going nowhere.
“I’d promised myself that before I turned 40 I would live as a hermit deep in the forest,” Tesson writes. He takes an engagingly French view of the contemplative life, equipping himself for a six-month Siberian sojourn on the shores of Lake Baikal with vodka, cigars and a book list that includes Lady Chatterley’s Lover, Sade’s Philosophy in the Bedroom, Casanova’s The Story of My Life, Shakespeare’s The Merry Wives of Windsor and Bret Easton Ellis’s American Psycho. “In that desert,” he writes, “I created a beautiful and temperate life for myself, experienced an existence centered on simple gestures.”
Fortunately, his isolation was not complete. The simple gestures of his existence involved the odd congenial bevvy with the locals: “The vodka goes down . . . I always find peace in the company of Russian woodsmen: I feel theirs is the human environment in which I would have liked to be born. It’s good not to have to keep a conversation going. Why is life with others so hard? Because you must always find something to say.”
Alas, halfway through his retreat, his girlfriend back in Paris finds something to say: “On the satellite phone I save for emergencies . . . five lines appear, more painful than a searing burn. The woman I love has dismissed me . . . I’ve sinned through my flights, my evasions and this cabin.” Too late, he dreams of “a little house in the suburbs with a dog, wife and children” (it is hard not to feel that there is something revealing about the order of that list).
“For all their narrowness,” Sylvain thinks gloomily, “the bourgeoisie has nevertheless understood this essential thing: we must give ourselves the possibility of a minimum of happiness.” Luckily he has acquired a couple of sweet puppies. “I cry into my dogs’ fur. I had no idea that fur soaks up tears so well.”
There is something refreshing about his very Gallic attitude to wilderness: plenty of drink, lots of philosophising, a touch of heartbreak and, after six months, on with few regrets to the next adventure.
Traditionally, a journey on foot in the city reveals something (usually bad) about the nature of the society in which the traveller finds himself, while a journey into nature offers the opportunity for contemplation and a kind of cleansing self-dissolution in the solitary sublime. Philip Hoare’s The Sea Inside inhabits the latter tradition.
Hoare prefaces his captivating volume of maritime wandering with a quotation from T H White’s remarkable book about the English landscape, England Have My Bones. “If one hadn’t got an anchorage,” wrote White, who longed for one and never quite found it, “it wouldn’t be exciting to sail away.”
Hoare’s theme is, partly, loneliness and the measures one takes not to avoid it but to embrace it in all its extraordinary variety. These may take the form of travel to distant shores, of searching on a beach for “hag” stones pierced with a hole; of the pursuit of strange stories in libraries and elsewhere; of the observation of birds and fish; of the daily immersing of one’s own body into water – that strange element, at once inimical and entirely familiar.
Hoare’s book is haunted by solitude, by a sense of memory and passing time, and by the loss of his mother, whose room in the family home near Southampton, where he now lives alone, remained undisturbed for six years after her death. His watery excursions – from a daily swim in the chilly, litterstrewn local estuary to a series of journeys by sea to ever more distant destinations, revolve around the elusive idea of home. At the end of his travels it occurs to him that his notebook, filled with the tangible evidence of memory – postcard, dried leaves, ticket stubs, slivers of whaleskin – is his place of refuge. “In the absence of anything else, it is my home . . . the anchor I let down.”
Jane Shilling is the author of “The Stranger in the Mirror” (Vintage, £8.99)