Nature writing, in its most simple definition, is fiction, non-fiction or poetry written about the natural environment. Forefathers of the genre include; Henry David Thoreau, Ralph Waldo Emerson, John Burroughs, John Muir, and Aldo Leopold to the name the biggies and most of their work was published, and would have been popular, in the second half of the 18th century and throughout the 19th.
One visit to a commercial book shop in 2016 however will reflect the revival of this genre. Full in-store displays dedicated to “new nature writers” are now situated amongst the most recent celebrity autobiography or the latest in a popular crime series – books on butterflies and sparrowhawks have seemingly made their way into the mainstream. But the question is: why?
One theory is that such books provide escapism for a large majority of the British public that live an urban existence. The countryside, and all that it entails, is no longer a day-to-day lifestyle for many people but now exists as a leisure activity. People are now actively heading into rural areas for retreats at the weekends or signing up to nordic walking holidays as an antidote to urban life, and it can be argued that this is reflected in the emerging literary genre.
Mark Cocker in his online essay Death of the naturalist: why is the “new nature writing” so tame? writes:
“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.”
Such books remind the reader of our individual existence in the wider world and often incorporate personal observations of and philosophical reflections upon nature and its relationship with human existence. This is not something new and has always been a key element of nature writing as demonstrated in the works of the great authors and poets mentioned above. Jamie Doward reiterates this in his article for The Guardian when he writes, “Many tagged with the new nature writing label acknowledge their debts to those before them, suggesting they are simply reviving a tradition rather than forging a new path”.
The stand out, ‘blockbuster’ of this literary revival is Helen Macdonald’s H is for Hawk which has sold more than 135,000 copies in the UK alone and won Costa Book of the Year, as well as the Samuel Johnson Prize for Non-Fiction. The book takes an unflinching look at Macdonald’s depression following the death of her father and how she found solace in the difficult process of training her goshawk. The natural world acts as a kind of therapy to her internal struggles, something which is found in many other works of nature writing.
One wonders if this a literary genre that looks to stay at the forefront of British culture for a while or if it is mere novelty. There’s no denying that countryside discussion has become an intrinsic part of the public’s dialogue in recent years on TV, on the radio, and even in mainstream fashion and this rising trend implies that memoirs of the countryside and manuals on raising chickens and owning allotments won’t wane in popularity for some time to come.
Links to further reading:
Robert Macfarlane: why we need nature writing by Robert Macfarlane (a response to Cocker’s piece)
The limits of nature writing by Richard Smyth
Photo credit: Ruth Cutts