Civil savages? Rachel Caine’s “god of all dogs”. Photo: Matt Cardy/Getty Images
Show Hide image

Where the wild things are: fiction that proves we're closer to nature than we think

Melissa Harrison's At Hawthorn Time and Sarah Hall's The Wolf Border take us to the brink of the anthropocene.

The Wolf Border
Sarah Hall
Faber & Faber, 435pp, £17.99

At Hawthorn Time
Melissa Harrison
Bloomsbury Circus, 279pp, £16.99

If only the line between the wild and the tame could be cleanly drawn. Rachel Caine, the protagonist of Sarah Hall’s compelling new novel, imagines that possibility. “She would like to believe there will be a place, again, where the streetlights end and wilderness begins.” This would be “the wolf border” from which her tale takes its title, a clear division between us and them. But as both Hall’s novel and Melissa Harrison’s At Hawthorn Time eloquently demonstrate, in the 21st century that boundary is blurred and treacherous.

Hall’s novel is something of an adventure story. Caine is a Cumbrian-born wildlife biologist; when the book begins she has been living in the United States on an Idaho reservation, monitoring the wolves that live there. She has been fascinated by them since she was a child, and first caught sight of one kept in a penned enclosure. “Long nose, the black tip twitching, short mane. A dog before dogs were invented. The god of all dogs.” She gives up the reservation life – and the man who doesn’t know he’s the father of her unborn child – when Thomas Pennington, the 11th Earl of Annerdale and one of the richest men in England, hires her to help reintroduce wolves to this island.

Harrison’s novel is much more of a chamber piece, a sequence of interleaved voices focused on a rural town called Lodeshill, somewhere towards the north of England. There’s Jack – an anonymous, fairy-tale name – a rural wanderer at odds with modernity, who lives off the land, finding occasional work, when he’s not being locked up for trespass. Jamie is a local boy, a young man born into a place where the best jobs to be found are in a giant, faceless warehouse. Howard and Kitty are incomers, Londoners; she wanted to come to Lodeshill, he didn’t. Both novels are about the uneasy collision between the rural and the urban, wealth and poverty, old and new.

It’s not news that writing about the natural world – and the way it chafes against the man-made – is having a moment in the spotlight. Not so long ago, in these pages, Philip Hoare wrote about “new nature writing” (noting that this is not a term much loved by the writers, but rather one imposed by publishers, who have to find a category for everything, poor things). In his essay, Hoare pointed out: “Most of us live in suburbia, a nowhere place, and so we send surrogate explorers – writers, artists, film-makers – to seek a reconnection that might never have been there in the first place.” He discussed, for the most part, non-fiction: books such as Helen Macdonald’s award-winning H Is for Hawk and Robert Macfarlane’s much-lauded Landmarks. But fiction, too, has its role to play in beating the bounds of the land, and these two novels are gripping examples of the trend.

Hall’s is the more overtly political. In Haweswater, The Electric Michelangelo and the futuristic fable The Carhullan Army, she has proved herself adept at moving between different registers and time periods; The Wolf Border is set in a just-alternate present where there is a Scottish referendum going on; only that the result is the opposite of how real Scots’ votes were cast last year. This could make the book seem past its sell-by date but Hall doesn’t make a meal of her alt-referendum; it’s a useful plot device on which her novel hinges in its gripping last third.

Rachel, through whose eyes we see this world, is well drawn: a woman in control of her destiny, chasing a changing idea of freedom and wondering what sacrifices must be made for her dream. But Thomas Pennington, her lordly employer, conforms a little too closely to the lines of the wealthy-do-gooding-ne’er-do-well-with-a-tragic-past trope. He never quite comes alive. And Hall’s language, though lovely, could have done with a keener editor’s eye: it can slide past poetry into excess. (“Her collarbones are like vestigial fins, her hair slicks down her back as she surfaces, aesthetic, Piscean.”)

Harrison’s debut novel, Clay, found a wilderness in the heart of a city: in Lodeshill, the urban encroaches on the rural. A starling learns to mimic a car alarm perfectly; a butterfly is “fooled” into laying its eggs on the green mesh of a tennis net, “and here and there they remained, a whitish crust like hundreds of tiny barnacles”. The countryside has become a place of “signposted walks and intelligible views”.

This is never heavy-handed: the clarity of her characters, their difficult appeal, keeps the book from feeling schematic. Howard and Kitty’s marriage, in particular, is exceptionally realised; they are two people floundering in a new place, in a relationship in which much has been hidden for many years. Howard is obsessed with restoring old radios, an echo of the static in his life; Kitty is a painter who hopes she’ll find a bucolic paradise in Lodeshill but discovers she’s drawn to painting the junk that hides in the greenery, the bases of powerlines, the synthetic gleam of plastic bottles. And this novel comes with a soundtrack, too – two evocative tunes uploaded to SoundCloud by Caught by the River, an online forum “for all things outdoors” in which Harrison plays a part.

Fifteen years ago the Dutch chemist and 1995 Nobel Prizewinner Paul Crutzen coined the term “anthropocene” to describe the new geological era in which we find ourselves: the first one in which human beings have had a major, ongoing impact on life on earth. In these novels, that impact is distilled through individual voices and individual lives: and is all the more powerfully felt for it.

Erica Wagner is a New Statesman contributing writer and a judge of the 2014 Man Booker Prize. A former literary editor of the Times, her books include Ariel's Gift: Ted Hughes, Sylvia Plath and the Story of “Birthday Letters” and Seizure.

This article first appeared in the 24 April 2015 issue of the New Statesman, What does England want?

Drew Angerer/Getty Images
Show Hide image

Donald Trump wants to terminate the Environmental Protection Agency - can he?

"Epa, Epa, Eeeepaaaaa" – Grampa Simpson.


There have been countless jokes about US President Donald Trump’s aversion to academic work, with many comparing him to an infant. The Daily Show created a browser extension aptly named “Make Trump Tweets Eight Again” that converts the font of Potus’ tweets to crayon scrawlings. Indeed, it is absurd that – even without the childish font – one particular bill that was introduced within the first month of Trump taking office looked just as puerile. Proposed by Matt Gaetz, a Republican who had been in Congress for barely a month, “H.R. 861” was only one sentence long:

“The Environmental Protection Agency shall terminate on December 31, 2018”.

If this seems like a stunt, that is because Gaetz is unlikely to actually achieve his stated aim. Drafting such a short bill without any co-sponsors – and leaving it to a novice Congressman to present – is hardly the best strategy to ensure a bill will pass. 

Still, Republicans' distrust for environmental protections is well-known - long-running cartoon show The Simpsons even did a send up of the Epa where the agency had its own private army. So what else makes H.R. 861 implausible?

Well, the 10-word-long statement neglects to address the fact that many federal environmental laws assume the existence of or defer to the Epa. In the event that the Epa was abolished, all of these laws – from the 1946 Atomic Energy Act to the 2016 Frank R. Lautenberg Chemical Safety for the 21st Century Act – would need to be amended. Preferably, a way of doing this would be included in the bill itself.

Additionally, for the bill to be accepted in the Senate there would have to be eight Democratic senators who agreed with its premise. This is an awkward demand when not even all Republicans back Trump. The man Trum appointed to the helm of the Epa, Scott Pruitt, is particularly divisive because of his long opposition to the agency. Republican Senator Susan Collins of Maine said that she was hostile to the appointment of a man who was “so manifestly opposed to the mission of the agency” that he had sued the Epa 14 times. Polls from 2016 and 2017 suggests that most Americans would be also be opposed to the agency’s termination.

But if Trump is incapable of entirely eliminating the Epa, he has other ways of rendering it futile. In January, Potus banned the Epa and National Park Services from “providing updates on social media or to reporters”, and this Friday, Trump plans to “switch off” the government’s largest citizen-linked data site – the Epa’s Open Data Web Service. This is vital not just for storing and displaying information on climate change, but also as an accessible way of civilians viewing details of local environmental changes – such as chemical spills. Given the administration’s recent announcement of his intention to repeal existing safeguards, such as those to stabilise the climate and protect the environment, defunding this public data tool is possibly an attempt to decrease awareness of Trump’s forthcoming actions.

There was also a recent update to the webpage of the Epa's Office of Science and Technology, which saw all references to “science-based” work removed, in favour of an emphasis on “national economically and technologically achievable standards”. 

Trump’s reshuffle of the Epa's priorities puts the onus on economic activity at the expense of public health and environmental safety. Pruitt, who is also eager to #MakeAmericaGreatAgain, spoke in an interview of his desire to “exit” the 2015 Paris Climate Agreement. He was led to this conclusion because of his belief that the agreement means “contracting our economy to serve and really satisfy Europe, and China, and India”.


Rather than outright closure of the Epa, its influence and funding are being leached away. H.R. 861 might be a subtle version of one of Potus’ Twitter taunts – empty and outrageous – but it is by no means the only way to drastically alter the Epa’s landscape. With Pruitt as Epa Administrator, the organisation may become a caricature of itself – as in The Simpsons Movie. Let us hope that the #resistance movements started by “Rogue” Epa and National Parks social media accounts are able to stave off the vultures until there is “Hope” once more.


Anjuli R. K. Shere is a 2016/17 Wellcome Scholar and science intern at the New Statesman

0800 7318496