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Robert Macfarlane: why we need nature writing

A new “culture of nature” is changing the way we live – and could change our politics, too.

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.

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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.”

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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

This article first appeared in the 03 September 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Pope of the masses

A 1907 painting of Spinoza, who was excommunicated from Judaism in 1656. Credit: SAMUEL HIRSZENBERG
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Why atheists are true believers too

How atheisms are imitating the religions they claim to reject.

In 1995 Richard Dawkins became the first ever “professor for the public understanding of science” at Oxford University. By the time he retired, 13 years later, it looked as if he had privately renegotiated his contract; for he was now functioning as Oxford’s very own professor for the public misunderstanding of religion.

In The God Delusion (2006) he argued that the existence of God was a scientific hypothesis which was almost – almost – demonstrably false. Miracles were scientifically impossible (yes, professor, I think we knew that: the clue was in the word “miracles”). And the creation story in the Book of Genesis was very bad science indeed. Opposing the stupidities of modern “creationism”, and all the other pseudo-scientific or anti-scientific dogmas of the fundamentalists, is one thing. Criticising the moral evils committed by religious fanatics is another, and no less worthwhile. Yet to treat religion itself as merely a defective form of science is a strangely crude error, rather like thinking that poetry is just a way of conveying factual statements that are to be tested for their truth or falsehood.

In his new book, Seven Types of Atheism, John Gray – who, I should mention, is no more a religious believer than I am – has little time for the so-called New Atheism of Dawkins and Co. The confusion of religion with science is only one of the points he objects to. Even if it can be shown that religion involves the creation of illusions, he argues, that does not mean that religion can or should be dispensed with; for “there is nothing in science that says illusion may not be useful, even indispensable, in life”. As for the idea of the American New Atheist Sam Harris that we can develop “a science of good and evil” which will contain all the correct liberal values: Gray sees this as a piece of astonishing and culpable naivety, ignoring nearly two centuries’ worth of evidence that scientism in ethics and illiberalism go happily hand-in-hand.

If this short book were just another intervention in the Dawkinsian “God debate”, it would be very short indeed. In fact it would get no further than page 23 where, at the end of his brief opening chapter, Gray concludes damningly that “the organised atheism of the present century is mostly a media phenomenon, and best appreciated as a type of entertainment”.

But the New Atheism is the least of the seven varieties that make up the subject-matter of this book. The others are all much more interesting, being connected with significant elements in our culture. And if the phrase “our culture” sounds parochial, well, that is an issue Gray deals with explicitly, pointing out that what we call “atheism” is something much more specific than just a rejection or absence of religion as such. It is a rejection of certain religious beliefs – and that narrows the field already, as many religions of the world are not primarily belief-systems at all. In particular, Gray argues, it is a rejection of belief in an omnipotent creator-god, which means that while atheism is Christianity’s close relative, it bears no relation to Hinduism or Buddhism at all.

So this is a book about post-Christian thinking – most of it, in Gray’s view, pretty bad thinking, too. One of his targets is secular humanism, which he describes as “a hollowed-out version of the Christian belief in salvation through history”. Another is what he calls “making a religion from science”, a delusion which he traces all the way from Mesmerism in the late 18th century, via dialectical materialism in the 19th and 20th, to those futurist thinkers today who dream of uploading a human being’s consciousness to computer circuits, thereby rendering it immortal. And another is political religion, “from Jacobinism through communism and Nazism to contemporary evangelical liberalism”.

Obviously there are overlaps between these three varieties of modern atheism; dialectical materialism, for instance, has also formed part of the creed of Marxist political religion. The one fundamental thing they have in common, on Gray’s account, is that they are all doctrines of progress, of an onwards and upwards march of humanity through history. Whether he is right to say that secular humanism is committed to this view, I am not so sure; doubtless, those who believe in humanist ethics will also think that if more and more people adopt their ethical system the world will become a better place, yet it’s not clear why they should regard that as inevitable.

But one thing at least is clear: John Gray regards all belief in human progress as the most pernicious of delusions. Despite all his eloquence on this subject, some readers may feel that his argument runs away with him, taking him further than he needs to go. It would be enough, surely, to say that the basic moral qualities of human beings have not changed over time, and that there’s no reason to think that any improvements in human behaviour that have taken place are part of a pattern of inevitable progress. Yet Gray goes further, claiming that there has been no real improvement at all.

The abolition of slavery? Slave auctions in “Islamic State” territory have been advertised on Facebook. The abandonment of torture? It has persisted at Guantanamo Bay. Well, yes; but having pockets of slavery here and there in the world is not the same as the situation 200 years ago, when it was a huge and entrenched institution, questioned only by a small minority. Yes, torture continues, but not as a standard judicial procedure. And in many countries there have been substantial, long-term changes in attitude and treatment where female subjugation, child labour and the criminalisation of homosexuality are concerned. Surely there must be some way of acknowledging this, without relapsing into Pollyannaish Steven Pinkerism?

One reason for Gray’s emphasis on the theme of temporal progress is that it fits these various secular atheisms into a larger pattern – that of salvation through history. And this brings us to the core of his argument: out of the whole range of major religions, only Christianity works in a historical dimension like this, which means that the secular atheisms are imitating, or unconsciously reproducing, a central feature of the very religion they claim to reject.

He makes this point again and again. These modern atheists’ view of the world is “inherited” from Christianity. Their belief in progress is “a secular avatar of a religious idea of redemption”. Jacobinism and Bolshevism were “channels” for the millenarian myths of Christianity. Bolshevism was in a “lineage” going back to medieval millenarianism. The apocalyptic myths of radical Christian movements “renewed themselves” in secular, political forms.

Having watched Gray wield his scalpel so effectively on other writers’ arguments, I can’t help thinking that this one deserves a few incisions. What does it mean to say that a communist who yearns for the coming of the classless society is really expressing just the same view as a millenarian looking to the reign of Christ on earth? The form of the belief may be roughly similar, but the content is entirely different. And if these are “inherited” ideas standing in a “lineage”, what is the evidence of a continuous chain of transmission – from, say, the 16th-century radical Anabaptists of Münster (whose chaotic quasi-communist experiment Gray describes in graphic detail) to the Bolsheviks of Petrograd and Moscow? As for the religious myths “renewing themselves” in a secular guise: this seems perilously close to the mindset of Dawkins’s theory of “memes”, which Gray has scornfully dismissed as hardly a theory at all.

Gray also mentions a Gnostic “impulse” that has recurred, unchanged, over two millennia. But if the same impulse can produce a religious idea in one period and a secular one in another, it seems that the impulse is something that stands behind both, itself neither secular nor religious. In which case, the modern atheisms may be not so much reproducing religious beliefs as expressing some basic yearnings that are pre-religious or non-religious in themselves. These are dark theoretical waters, and I am not convinced that Gray has got to the bottom of them.

Yet what he has done is to produce a marvellously stimulating account of some major currents of post-Christian thought, in which ideas and arguments leap constantly off the page like white-hot sparks from an anvil. The dismissals are concise and often devastating; but there are also wonderfully funny details, lovingly accumulated by a wry observer of human foolishness. It is nice to learn, for example, that Auguste Comte’s secular religion of Positivism imposed on its followers “special types of clothing, with buttons placed on the back so that they could not be worn without the help of others – thereby promoting altruism”. And I would challenge anyone to read Gray’s account of the cult of Ayn Rand, with its compulsory cigarette-smoking and rational tap-dancing, and not laugh out loud.

But what of Gray’s own post-religious beliefs? He certainly does not belong in the fifth category discussed here, that of “misotheists” – the Marquis de Sade, Dostoevsky and William Empson – whose views were shaped by a positive hatred of God. (Here, at least, he has no difficulty in showing that some kinds of atheism are dependent intimately and inseparably on Christian theology.) Gray’s own sympathies are divided between his two final varieties: the naturalistic, undogmatic and guaranteed progress-free atheism of the philosopher George Santayana; and the philosophico-theological theories of Spinoza and Schopenhauer, which argued obscurely both that a greater reality, possibly to be identified as Spirit or God, existed, and that to talk about it as a god who created the world, or intervened in it, or issued commands to humans, was to misunderstand it entirely.

Santayana was himself an admirer of Spinoza, and towards the end of the book, Gray quotes his characterisation of the Dutch-Jewish philosopher as follows: “By overcoming all human weaknesses, even when they seem kindly or noble, and by honouring power and truth, even if they should slay him, he entered the sanctuary of an unruffled superhuman wisdom.” I am not sure that this is quite the image that readers should take away of Gray, whose tolerance of human weaknesses – at the personal level, if not the intellectual one – seems admirably generous. Nor can it be guaranteed that people will acquire unruffled superhuman wisdom by reading this book. More likely they will find themselves tremendously, even painfully, ruffled. And I mean that as high praise, for an author who is one of the greatest intellectual provocateurs of our time. 

Noel Malcolm is editor of the Clarendon Edition of the Works of Thomas Hobbes and a fellow of All Souls, Oxford

John Gray will appear in conversation with Jason Cowley at Waterstones Trafalgar Square, London WC2, on 2 May (newstatesman.com/events)

Seven Types of Atheism
John Gray
Allen Lane, 176pp, £17.99

This article first appeared in the 03 September 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Pope of the masses