Mark Cocker’s interrogation of “the new nature writing”, which we published in June, provoked heated debate. Here is Robert Macfarlane’s reply.
In 1972, Gregory Bateson published Steps to an Ecology of Mind, a collection of his essays from the previous three decades. Bateson was a dazzlingly versatile thinker, whose work shaped the fields of anthropology, linguistics and cybernetics, as well as the movement we now call environmentalism. Near the end of the book, Bateson deplored the delusion of human separation from nature. “We are not,” he warned, “outside the ecology for which we plan.” His remedy for this separatism was the development of an “ecology of mind”. The steps towards such a mind were to be taken by means of literature, art, music, play, wonder and attention to nature – what he called “ecological aesthetics”.
Bateson, who died in 1980, would have been excited by what has happened in the culture of our islands over the past 15 years. An ecology of mind has emerged that is extraordinary in its energies and its diversity. In nurseries and universities, apiaries and allotments, transition towns and theatres, woodlands and festivals, charities and campaigns – and in photography, film, music, the visual and plastic arts and throughout literature – a remarkable turn has occurred towards Bateson’s ecological aesthetics. A 21st-century culture of nature has sprung up, born of anxiety and anger but passionate and progressive in its temperament, involving millions of people and spilling across forms, media and behaviours.
This culture is not new in its concerns but it is distinctive in its contemporary intensity. Its politics is not easily placed on the conventional spectrum, so we would do better to speak of its values. Those values include placing community over commodity, modesty over mastery, connection over consumption, the deep over the shallow, and a version of what the American environmentalist Aldo Leopold called “the land ethic”: the double acknowledgement that, first, human beings are animals and, second, we are animals among other animals, sharing our habitat with members of the biota that also have meetable needs and rights.
The outcomes of this culture have ranged from the uncountable enrichments of individual lives to clear examples of political and social change with regard to conservation and our relationships with “landscape”, in the fullest sense of the word.
Co-operation is crucial. Poets are collaborating with educationalists, printmakers with permaculturists, dramaturges with climate scientists, film-makers with folk singers, sculptors with physicians – all in a gumbo that would surely have met with Bateson’s approval, as would the underlying belief that, in Lucy Neal’s phrase, artists can be “agents of change”.
Here are just a few examples drawn from my acquaintance. In terms of charities, I think of young organisations such as Action for Conservation, which seeks to inspire teenagers to become “the next generation of nature conservationists”, or Onca, which has the mission “to inspire creativity and positive action in the face of environmental change” by means of the arts. In terms of publications, I think of the journal Archipelago, or the magazine EarthLines, run, until recently, out of a croft in the Outer Hebrides and standing for “a land ethic”. In education, I think of the huge rise of forest schools; in theatre, of agile, agitating political companies including Metis Arts and the surge in British climate-change drama. In terms of campaigns, I think of Rewilding Britain, arising from George Monbiot’s book Feral (2013) and seeking to replenish British biodiversity and “connect people with the wonder of nature”; the recent Hen Harrier Day, which brought together Chris Packham and Jeremy Deller to combat the extinction in England of these beautiful hawks as a result of the grouse-shooting industry; or the emerging New Commons campaign, with which I am involved, aiming for the creation of areas of common land around our biggest cities.
In all of these cases, the natural good, cultural activity and human well-being are mingled rather than separable categories. As Ali Smith has observed, “The place where the natural world meets the arts is a fruitful, fertile place for both.” We might think of that place as an “ecotone” – the biological term for a transition zone between biomes, where two communities meet and integrate. That integration is excitingly visible on the Caught by the River website, where scientists and river restorationists share terrain with experimental musicians and urban birders.
As a writer and an academic, I also think of books. W H Auden once said that, among scientists, he felt like “a shabby curate . . . [in] a roomful of dukes”. When I am with serious conservationists – the people at the delivery end of saving the planet – I often feel like that shabby curate. I also ask them what switched on their passion for protecting nature and the answer is almost always the same: an encounter with a wild creature and an encounter with a book.
Literature has the ability to change us for good, in both senses of the phrase. Powerful writing can revise our ethical relations with the natural world, shaping our place consciousness and our place conscience. Roger Deakin’s Waterlog (1999) prompted the revival of lido culture in Britain and the founding of the “wild swimming” movement. Richard Mabey’s Nature Cure (2005) is recommended by mental health professionals. Chris Packham fell in love with wild cats and golden eagles because he read Lea MacNally’s Highland Deer Forest (1970), as a child growing up in suburban Southampton.
“Nature writing” has become a cant phrase, branded and bandied out of any useful existence, and I would be glad to see its deletion from the current discourse. Yet it is clear that in Britain we are living through a golden age of literature that explores relations between selfhood, landscape and ethics and addresses what Mabey has described as the “growing fault line in the way we perceive and talk about nature”. I don’t know what to call this writing, nor am I persuaded that it needs a name. It is not a genre or a school. An ecology, perhaps? In the Guardian in 2003, I described what I saw as the green shoots of a revival of such writing. Twelve years on, those shoots have flourished into a forest, richly diverse in its understory as well as its canopy.
I would love to name a hundred writers here but lists soon get boring. Let me indicate something of the range of what is being undertaken, however, by acclaiming non-fiction that reaches from George Monbiot to Kathleen Jamie, by way of Dave Goulson, Philip Hoare, Sara Maitland, Tim Dee and John Burnside, and includes Helen Macdonald’s soaring H Is for Hawk, as well as such giants as Mabey and Tim Robinson. In the past nine months alone, we have had Michael McCarthy’s moving memoir The Moth Snowstorm, Rob Cowen’s bold and beautiful Common Ground and James Rebanks’s The Shepherd’s Life, bringing in an important voice from the world of farming.
In the coming months, we will have a defence of landscape “beauty” from Fiona Reynolds, a towering figure in British conservation, Nina Lyon’s pursuit of the Green Man and Mabey’s botanical magnum opus, The Cabaret of Plants. The first-person voice is strong in many of these books – but it was also strong in Henry David Thoreau’s Walden (1854), a founding text of modern environmentalism. Indeed, it was so strong that the printer who typeset the first edition ran out of capital Is.
Recent British poetry is deeply involved with landscape and nature, from Katrina Porteous on the Northumberland coast to Alice Oswald in Devon, by way of Debjani Chatterjee and Sean Borodale, to the experimental work of Richard Skelton, Autumn Richardson and Colin Simms’s lifelong project of natural-historical verse (see his recent Hen Harrier Poems). Fiction spans the rural violence of Cynan Jones and Ben Myers, through Kirsty Gunn, Laura Beatty, Melissa Harrison and Sarah Hall, all the way to China Miéville’s thrillingly weird prose. Alongside this new work has come the rediscovery of remarkable writing from the 19th and 20th centuries. Edward Thomas, J A Baker, Nan Shepherd and others have found fresh generations of readers, often thanks to the efforts of small publishers such as the superb Little Toller Books.
The best of the recent writing is ethically alert, theoretically literate and wary of the seductions and corruptions of the pastoral. It is sensitive to the dark histories of landscapes and to the structures of ownership and capital that organise – though do not wholly produce – our relations with the natural world. One might as reasonably expect to meet the geographer Doreen Massey or the philosopher Gilles Deleuze in its pages as Gilbert White or the bar-tailed godwit. Nor does this literature advocate a Luddite environmentalism: it tends to be anti-technocracy but not anti-technology.
Some of this writing is kick-up-the-arse furious, some is elegiac, some is about disease and dispossession, some is about dignity and the deepening of knowledge. Across its range, moral engagement and hope are consistently in evidence. Every contemporary writer about nature of my acquaintance is not “only” a writer but is also involved in political agitation, campaigns and volunteer work on behalf of the living world. This is far from the caricature of the 18th-century picturesque, in which moneyed artists sketch the Wye while peasants expire at their ankles and gouty aristos gaze dreamily through their Claude glasses.
Not everything in the forest is lovely and not all of this writing is to the taste of every reader. More voices need to be heard from ethnic-minority writers and from a wider range of identities and backgrounds. There could also be a lot more jokes. But there is no one true way of writing about nature and place. The tradition of such literature has always been, as I argued in 2003, “passionate, pluriform and essential”. Our contemporary version mixes ire, irony and the irenic; green ecologies with dark ecologies.
It is the hopefulness, commitment and diversity of the current field that made Mark Cocker’s recent attack on it seem so disappointingly crabbed. In June, Cocker wrote an article for this magazine suggesting that the so-called new nature writers – including me and Helen Macdonald – were politically passive and insufficiently invested in the natural world. The standfirst asked: “How much do [these] authors truly care about our wild places?” Cocker went on to caricature much of the recent work as “pastoral narratives” that fail to engage with the “troubling realities” of modern Britain.
Nature books, he wrote, must navigate “between joy and anxiety” (as if they didn’t already, obsessively) and must have “real soil” at their roots. Does Macdonald’s H Is for Hawk – which never self-identifies as nature writing anyway – not have real soil at its roots in the form of her father’s sudden death and her grief? Implicit throughout Cocker’s article were the ideas that only those with “naturalist” knowledge should be writing about nature and that nature is a category confined to the non-human, as separable from “landscape” as “culture” is separable from “literature”.
It was a regrettable piece of policing. Its manners were especially unfortunate, because at its heart Cocker – a fine writer and ornithologist – was asking valuable questions about how cultural activity connects to political change. He was right to sound the alarm for the living world but his suggestion that any literary engagement with nature must be noisily game-changing was wrong. Such an instrumentalising view subdues literature to a single end and presupposes a simplistic model of consequence: that Cultural Action A leads to Political Outcome B.
The great American activist and writer Rebecca Solnit, a hero of mine, explains the limits of this view. “A lot of activists expect that for every action there is an equal and opposite and punctual reaction,” she writes in Hope in the Dark (2005), in a passage to which I find myself often returning:
[They] regard the lack of one as failure . . . But history is shaped by the groundswells and common dreams that single acts and moments only represent. It’s a landscape more complicated than commensurate cause and effect. Politics is a surface in which transformation comes about as much because of pervasive changes in the depths of the collective imagination as because of visible acts, though both are necessary . . . Writers need to understand that action is seldom direct. You write your books. You scatter your seeds. Rats might eat them or they might just rot . . .
Some seeds lie dormant for decades because they only germinate after fire.
Numerous literary examples prove Solnit’s “indirect action” thesis. My favourite is that of John Muir, the Scottish-born father of American conservation. In 1869, Muir washed up in the Sierra Nevada range of California, where he took a job as a shepherd. His first summer in the mountains inspired him to write ecstatic essays about the landscape of the Sierra and the intrinsic value of nature. Years later, some of those essays were by chance read by Theodore Roosevelt, who was wonderstruck by them. He travelled to meet Muir in 1903 and the two men walked and talked for three days. Roosevelt went on to place the Yosemite Valley under federal protection and to sign into existence during his presidency five national parks, 55 national bird sanctuaries and 150 national forests.
Muir’s writing lives on in today’s Britain in the form of the John Muir Trust, which campaigns to protect and enhance our wild places, and the John Muir Award, which has introduced 250,000 people in Britain to Muir’s philosophy of conservation (with over a quarter of those from disadvantaged areas or with disabilities). Literature usually works not in straight lines but in cat’s cradles of cause and effect. Vital connections sometimes manifest themselves only in retrospect – or even remain unseen.
Here are some other, more direct examples. J A Baker’s book The Peregrine (1967) motivated a student of mine to join the protests at the Kingsnorth power station. Charles Rangeley-Wilson’s subtle book Silt Road (2013) was read by a council officer in High Wycombe and has energised plans to de-culvert the River Wye in the town: what a joyous, unforeseeable outcome!
My writing has led me into close collaborations with dozens of local protest groups, conservation charities and nature-minded initiatives, not to mention its shaping of my work as a teacher. The idea of endorsing a naive pastoralism is anathema to me. In the same week as Cocker’s New Statesman piece was published, I was writing the script for an angry, hour-long documentary about oil, climate change and environmental damage in the Alaskan Arctic. I am currently working on a very short book about British nuclear bombs with the artist Stanley Donwood and a very long book about mining, death and underworlds.
A fortnight after Cocker’s piece was published, the Guardian reviewed my most recent book, Landmarks, which is about community resistance, pollution and species loss, as well as language and landscape. The final lines of the article read: “Landmarks is a book that ought to be read by policymakers, educators, armchair environmentalists and active conservationists the world over. If we are to defend the land from further degradation, we have to begin by knowing what it is we are talking about.”
Literature can lead to activism and can feed into policymaking. But as Jonathan Bate has written, it need not explicitly “pronounce an ecological message” to perform ecological work. Take Julian Hoffman’s finely focused essays in The Small Heart of Things (2012), or the sparsely contemplative poetry of Thomas A Clark. For both writers, concentration is an ethical act. With his tiny, delicate poems, Clark has said that he hopes to do nothing less vital than “celebrate the life around them”. In so doing, they ask readers to approach the living world not as a standing reserve but as a precious gift. In Tim Dee’s striking phrase, “We need bird poems as much as [we need] the RSPB.”
George Monbiot, another of my heroes, has written stirringly about why we “fight for the living world”:
The reality is that we care because we love. Nature appealed to our hearts, when we were children, long before it appealed to our heads, let alone our pockets . . . Acknowledging our love for the living world does something that a library full of papers on sustainable development and ecosystem services cannot: it engages the imagination as well as the intellect. It inspires belief; and this is essential to the lasting success of any movement.
Yes, yes and yes again. And literature is exceptionally good at acknowledging love, inspiring belief and engaging “the imagination as well as the intellect”. That is why we should welcome the full range of “ecological aesthetics”. To see ourselves as within the ecology for which we plan, we require fury, burn, scorch and scour in our contemporary nature culture – but also wonder, joy, beauty, grace, play and concentration.
We must bring about the “major reawakening by our political classes to the idea that civilisation is rooted in a genuine and benign transaction with non-human life”, as Cocker puts it. But this won’t be magically managed by a single silver bullet – rather by what the climate scientist Richard Somerville brilliantly calls “silver buckshot, the large number of worthwhile efforts that all need to take place”. So down with disdain and division, up with celebration and connection – and onwards in a hundred hopeful steps towards an ecology of mind.
Robert Macfarlane is a fellow of Emmanuel College, Cambridge. His award-winning books include “Mountains of the Mind” (Granta) and “The Old Ways” (Penguin). He is an honorary patron of the Cambridge Literary Festival, where he appears on 29 November, interviewing Simon Armitage and Alexandra Harris