The recent expansion of “new nature writing” is among the most significant developments in British publishing this century. If you missed its inception or have not the inclination to read the scores of books appearing under its banner, you could do worse to catch up than to read a single chapter in Michael McCarthy’s new book, The Moth Snowstorm: Nature and Joy. It is the one entitled “The Great Thinning” and it powerfully and succinctly summarises the unfolding national story.
The phrase refers to the inexorable diminution of wildlife on these islands since the Second World War, primarily at the hands of farmers armed with an array of industrially produced chemicals. “The country I was born into,” McCarthy writes, “possessed something wonderful it absolutely possesses no longer: natural abundance . . . Blessed, unregarded abundance has been destroyed.” His most powerful and strangely poignant example of this is something that only people over 50 would have seen: the blizzard of nocturnal insects that would eventually obliterate the vision of any driver on a long car journey during a summer’s evening. I remember it, just.
Over the decades, during his time as a journalist, McCarthy sensed the public’s ability to hear this story in its piecemeal form and ignore it almost entirely. Even now, he points out, the scale of what has happened on these islands eludes many people.
It is this gap between our recent natural history and the present public taste for such books that makes the upsurge of the “new nature” genre so fascinating – but also so perplexing. What role are these works playing and what do they say about the British relationship with non-human life?
As Philip Hoare has observed in an article for this magazine, no writer working in the field seems to care for the “new nature” tag. One emerging anxiety is that it has come to signify much of what we associate with New Labour: a project that has been uprooted from its original generative stock.
No book better epitomises the genre’s astonishing success than Helen Macdonald’s H Is for Hawk. Expected to be the international publishing phenomenon of both 2014 and 2015, it has won a clutch of literary awards, including the Costa Book of the Year and the Samuel Johnson Prize, and is already being talked about as a “classic of nature writing”. The date of its original launch last year – 31 July – is apparently being seized upon by all manner of publishing houses as one that now possesses occult significance.
The book tells of Macdonald’s battle with depression after the death of her father but it intercuts this family history with an account of her possession and training of a pet goshawk called Mabel. Into the weave of her double-stranded autobiography, she embroiders a parallel account of T H White (1906-64), who was her fellow both as an author and as an austringer (the technical name for a keeper of short-winged hawks). Out of his bird-training experience, White eventually produced his own minor classic The Goshawk in 1951. By incorporating White’s parallel hawking life into her book, Macdonald, in essence, offers us three stories for the price of one. The structure of H Is for Hawk is possibly the most devilishly intricate of any British nature book and it is no surprise that it took seven years to write.
The book’s profound impact is not in any doubt but a legitimate question to pose about H Is for Hawk is its status as a nature book. The motif of a raptor as a symbol of grief and of the author’s struggle with depression is indisputably powerful. Macdonald’s evocation of her bird’s savage habits also provides the book’s aura of raw otherness but it is ultimately not a wild bird. Yet there are wild goshawks in Britain and these barely appear in the text. You would understand why if you have ever tried to look for this extraordinary bird. Wild goshawks are among Britain’s most elusive and unpredictable large predators. I go looking routinely and count a sighting on one in ten visits a pretty good return. Goshawk watching is a frustrating business but the birds’ self-willed indifference to our intentions is surely almost a defining characteristic of nature.
It is not our project. It keeps its own hours. One powerful psychological effect of contact with nature is that it measures what we are not and the specific appeal of books on the subject is that they simultaneously remind us of our relationship with the rest of life but deflate our burdening sense of centrality within it. We become part, not all.
One wonders if the championing of H Is for Hawk as a model of the genre says little about the book and nothing at all about its literary merit but reveals more about this country and its peculiar relationship with nature. This, after all, is a nation in which Plantlife, the environmental organisation that seeks to safeguard our wild native vegetation, has a membership of 10,500, while the Royal Horticultural Society has 434,000 supporters.
One final notable part of Macdonald’s triumph is that she is a woman. A criticism of new nature writing, proffered by one of its most important exponents, Kathleen Jamie, is the predominance hitherto of white, upper-middle-class men. The “Lone Enraptured Male” was her telling phrase, which encompasses the notion that the nature writer is also an excursionist who visits, then retreats back to the city:
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.
Her concerns chime closely with observations made by another critic, Jim Perrin, a mountaineer and the author of a searing memoir entitled West: a Journey Through the Landscapes of Loss (2010). Perrin argues that new nature writing is quintessentially an urban literature with a primarily metropolitan audience. He suggests that for both author and reader, engagement with nature is an act of remembrance rather than a daily, lived experience. Given that most Britons now dwell in cities, one could argue that it is therefore a perfect literature for our times.
The person who has borne the brunt of the criticisms – and who is the target of Jamie’s passage quoted above – is the author credited with widening and popularising the genre. Robert Macfarlane bestrides the entire sphere: an establishment guru akin to Laurens van der Post in the 20th century or John Ruskin in the Victorian era. His is the name on almost every dust jacket, through an improbable flow of puffs, forewords, introductions and publishers’ endorsements. His own books, especially The Wild Places (2007) and The Old Ways (2012), have achieved audiences unmatched by anyone (except Macdonald) since Ring of Bright Water’s author, Gavin Maxwell. He has supplanted his old friend Richard Mabey as the default spokesperson for his community.
Poor Richard Mabey. To him, it must now seem that there is some ambitious young scribbler in every holloway, dingle or fen, where once he wandered the landscape like a castaway on a desert island. Yet his oeuvre, amounting to more than 30 titles, is vast and his place in the development of nature writing, if occasionally overlooked, is beyond question and repays careful consideration.
It should first be noted that Mabey also inherited his approach to nature from others. To the late Kenneth Allsop, he owes his concern to explore the political and cultural ramifications of nature. From his lifelong friend Ronald Blythe, who is surely the greatest essayist in this country since William Hazlitt, he acquired both an attention to prose style and a literary form that suits him perfectly. Blythe’s writing dwells partly on rural life and wildlife but the interest in the real stuff of nature is deeper and wider in Mabey’s. He is, after all, a lifelong practising botanist.
Mabey has mapped not only the extent of the genre’s territory but also supplied the models for many of the new books. An early work called The Unofficial Countryside (1973, recently reissued by Little Toller) was about those overlooked bastard landscapes that are at once industrial, urban and inhabited by wild plants or animals. The subject has subsequently been revisited by so many others that it is virtually a subgenre under the heading “edgelands”. Rob Cowen’s Common Ground, published in May, is the latest in this field. Mabey’s Flora Britannica (1996) directly supplied the formula for my book Birds Britannica (2005).
Mabey’s memoir Nature Cure (2005) charts his prolonged mental illness and his gradual awakening to nature during a very slow recovery. One can surely spot that book’s DNA in many of the more recent works: H Is for Hawk, Katharine Norbury’s affecting debut, The Fish Ladder, and even The Moth Snowstorm, in which McCarthy links his experience of nature to his mother’s mental breakdown.
Mabey’s entire project could be summarised as a movement along a single axis between culture – land practice or literature, science, the visual arts, sculpture, whatever – and nature. It is metaphorically and actually rooted in a soil of real, living things. Almost every one of the books involves movement between those two poles. In Macfarlane’s work and in so many of the new books, nature and culture have been replaced by landscape and literature. It may seem a relatively small shift in emphasis but one cannot help pondering its significance.
In a sense, the issue is writ largest in William Atkins’s The Moor (2014). It is well written and intelligently observed and had a deserved place on the shortlist of a new award for nature and travel writing, the Thwaites Wainwright Prize. It straddles several older literary boundaries. It is difficult to say if it’s an old-fashioned travel book, a nature work, or a volume of literary criticism. It is probably all three and what is certain is that it typifies the new crop unleashed since Macfarlane’s rise to pre-eminence.
The Moor attempts to explore the cultural purpose and meaning of some of the most forsaken, yet most contested, semi-natural places in Britain. They are the gritstone uplands, dominated by heather, mosses and lichens but also now by sheep and by red grouse. This intermittent column of high ground serves as England’s vertebrae from Cornwall to Cumbria. Yet a striking anomaly about The Moor, which looks more significant in view of the recent widening gulf between north and south, is its billing as a book about British uplands, when Atkins barely crosses the English border. Yet Scotland holds twice as much grouse moorland – two million acres – as England and Wales combined.
In truth, the author is most comfortable tackling the historical and inherited psychological roles of such landscapes as described in the literary works of W H Auden, the Brontës, Ted Hughes, Sylvia Plath or Henry Williamson. There are, for instance, far more titles in the bibliography concerning the sexual politics of Hughes and Plath than there are about the environmental politics of red grouse and hen harriers.
Wild thing: Robert Macfarlane, the genre’s figurehead, has been criticised for being an “excursionist”. Photo: Colin Hattersley/Writer Pictures
Does that matter? It does if you consider that most moorland exists today to deliver a cash crop of grouse to a super-rich elite who think little of paying between £3,000 and £12,000 per person for a day’s shooting. Just as significant is that you and I, through our taxes, help to subsidise those little luxuries. As a consequence of management that aims to create the maximum possible grouse bag and therefore raise the most money, grouse moor owners have almost extinguished the predatory hen harrier from England and substantially reduced its potential numbers in Scotland.
At present in Britain, perhaps no environmental issue is more heated or more controversial than that of driven grouse moors and hen harrier persecution. It goes to the heart of modern British society because it taps in to that larger social narrative about the rich getting richer and ordinary people having less and less say in the running of their own country.
Atkins is perfectly entitled to define the territory of his literary project. There are no automatic requirements for a work to tackle these issues. Yet one cannot read The Moor without feeling the modern political realities and their urgent, nature-centred questions brewing on the elected boundaries of his book with the force of thunderclouds. Moors, real moors, have multiple meanings that are rooted in the animals and plants that thrive – or don’t thrive – in their churlish, acidic conditions. That is perhaps the crucial difference between a work that seeks to traffic between culture and nature and one that moves from literature to landscape, which is as much an imagined as it is a real place.
One of the central concerns of the new literature is the idea of “re-enchantment”, a diffuse term that seems to mean whatever the author wishes. What it usually involves is clothing a landscape in fine writing, both the writer’s own and that of other historical figures – Emily Brontë, Edward Thomas and Nan Shepherd are good examples – so that the place is infused with fresh cultural meaning. (John Crace’s mischievous “Digested Read” for the Guardian of Macfarlane’s latest book, Landmarks, defines “Macfarlish” as “the process of praising other authors to make your own book better by association”.)
The problem with this formula is that landscapes readily persist when all that makes a place enchanting – the filigree of its natural diversity – has long since vanished. A perfect example is Kinder Scout in Derbyshire. It is among the most iconic moorland places in England, the site of the “mass trespass” of 1932, when the workers of Manchester tried to reclaim England’s countryside for its people. All of the macro-details – the sky, the elements, the contours of the place, with those fantastic gritstone monoliths along its wind-buffeted edge – are intact. What is gone is everything else: the complex vegetation, the living peat substrate, the grouse, the twites and the ring ouzels. A massive, long-term restoration project at Kinder seeks to put back the lost magic.
The main challenge that confronts authors of nature writing in Britain is the one considered in The Moth Snowstorm. How can we produce pastoral narratives when the realities underlying them are so sharply defined and their implications – social, political and cultural – so profound?
Surely it behoves all those who care about these islands’ non-human life to take account of the central story concerning nature in Britain? That narrative speaks of how we are bulldozing our fellow Britons – between 60,000 and 80,000 species of animal and plant – over the cliff into oblivion. We, a supposedly “nature-loving” people, are in danger of creating one of the most denatured countries on the planet. I would suggest that outside the lymphatic system of reserves and national parks, vast areas of England are already there.
All of the environmental organisations know this story but they are struggling to tell it, partly because the news is so bad. Everyone prefers a happy ending. Yet major players such as Mike Clarke, the CEO of the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds, are quietly, passionately talking of game-changing environmental initiatives. Quite how the game can change is difficult to see, however, without some major reawakening by our political classes to the idea that civilisation is rooted in a genuine and benign transaction with non-human life.
Does this mean that all nature books have to be filled with the grief and pain of loss? Of course not. But they have to navigate – as McCarthy endeavours to do – between joy and anxiety. Nature writers must ponder and engage with these troubling realities. Otherwise, we are just fiddling while the agrochemicals burn.
The real danger is that nature writing becomes a literature of consolation that distracts us from the truth of our fallen countryside, or – just as bad – that it becomes a space for us to talk to ourselves about ourselves, with nature relegated to the background as an attractive green wash. The project of re-enchantment might restore to us a canon of lost writings about the eeriness and mystery of our landscape. Yet, as Emerson warned in his essay “Nature”, what worth is there in words that have no real soil at their roots?
Mark Cocker’s latest book is “Claxton: Field Notes from a Small Planet” (Jonathan Cape)