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Inspired by Nature: Writing and Research

“Some things you had to read at school because they were on the syllabus, but you can end up hating”, said Professor Coates, “but for others you retain a life-long affection - and sometimes they take on fresh meaning years later.”

We asked Peter Coates, Professor of American and Environmental History at the University of Bristol, about his favourite pieces of naturewriting that have inspired him over the years. Professor Coates is the academic lead for our project on the world of wildlife filmmaking at BBC Natural History Unit in Bristol.

Image of Peter Coates in an orchard

“For me, John Keats’ ‘La Belle Dame Sans Merci’ is one such poem that has taken on refreshed meaning.”

“It wasn’t the tale of infatuation, unrequited love, and heartache that struck me most powerfully when I was studying O-level - now GCSE - English Literature. What transported that sixteen-year old boy and held me in thrall ever since is the moody setting.”

"My favourite line in the poem reads 'the sedge is withered from the lake, and no birds sing'."

“Years later, reading a biography of Rachel Carson, I discovered that the title of pioneering US environmentalist’s landmark study, Silent Spring, was inspired by Keats’ poem. Birdsong, the hallmark of spring, is silenced when the avian songsters succumb to pesticides. This is a perfect example of the strong link between creative literature and ecological awareness.”

“My other favourite nature poem also revolves around the seasons. In ‘The Summer Day’ by the Pulitzer Prize winning American poet Mary Oliver, glorious summer is in full swing.”

“The poem is an ode to the joys of creative idleness in nature. It is a reminder that we need to get out there in the fields and woods, as well as devoting our time to the indoor study of the texts that nature inspires.”

“Oliver says ‘Doesn’t everything die at last, and too soon? Tell me, what is it you plan to do with your one wild and precious life?’ A powerful challenge, I think."

Professor Coates then turned to his favourite novels – Jack Kerouac’s Desolation Angels, and Thomas Hardy’s The Return of the Native.

“After I’d read On The Road – which was definitely not on the school syllabus - I worked my way through the beat generation writer’s lesser known novels”, explained Professor Coates.

Map of the Pacific Crest Trail
Map of the Pacific Crest Trail, from www.media.columbian.com

First published in 1965, Desolation Angels is a semi-autobiographical, meditative account of a solitary season the protagonist, Jack Duluoz, spent as a fire lookout in the summer of 1956.

"Jack Duluoz lives in a cabin on the summit of Desolation Peak, in the North Cascade Mountains of Washington state, fifteen miles from the nearest road. This setting was a key influence on my taste in landscape and place.”

“Kerouac’s paean to the great American wilderness was heady stuff for a seventeen-year old for whom wildness in nature previously meant the Lake District or the West Highlands", laughed Professor Coates. "It actually inspired me to hike most of the Pacific Crest Trail that runs from the Mexican border north to Canada, passing close by Kerouac’s cabin. Beyond that trip, the novel gave me a potent sense of the autonomy and inscrutability of the natural world."

“Every day the character Jack Duluoz looked out at Hozomeen, a twin-peaked mountain to the north. Kerouac wrote ‘Hozomeen, rock, never eats, never stores up debris never sighs, never dreams of distant cities, never waits for Fall, never lies…Every night I still ask the Lord, “Why?” and haven’t heard a decent answer yet’.”

“A British counterpart, for me, was Thomas Hardy’s The Return of the Native, with its evocative portrayal of Egdon Heath in Hardy Country in Wessex. Even though Egdon Heath is a fictitious place, it's much more than a backdrop for the human action. It's an unruly, uncultivated and thinly populated wildland, and is arguably the main protagonist - and grabbed me by the throat.”

“I was enchanted by Annie Dillard’s Pilgrim at Tinker Creek", continued Professor Coates. "It won the 1975 Pulitzer Prize for general non-fiction. Dillard mapped the natural world around her home in Roanoke, Virginia, and paints a picture of a flora and fauna that was ordinary rather than spectacular, nearby rather than distant."

“Another of my favourites by Dillard is ‘Living Like Weasels’, which was recently brought to my attention by an old friend, and it became an instant favourite. It’s only a couple of pages long, it’s about a chance encounter with a weasel, at the edge of a shallow pond, not far from a major highway, where ‘under every bush is a muskrat hole or a beer can’."

Extract from Keats poem

“Though the encounter was brief, it left an indelible mark, at least on the human party. I often ponder – though less eloquently than Dillard! – nature’s archive, and how to read this other-than-human record: ‘What does a weasel think about? He won’t say. His journal is tracks in clay, a spray of feathers, mouse blood and bone: uncollected, loose leaf, and blown’.”

For his final selection, Professor Coates shared with us a precious favourite, recalling trips to the beach in his childhood. 

"My final favourite was a prize-winning poet’s first venture into prose, and it's about a particular place that has special meaning for me. It's about the coast of southwest Lancashire (Sefton), which was my boyhood stomping ground."

"I read Jean Sprackland’s Strands shortly after it was published, in preparation for a workshop on the subject of Sandscapes (held further up the Lancashire coast in Morecambe), in which the author would participate. I could hardly believe that she’d written a book about a place that was as meaningful for me as it was for her, but which didn’t enjoy the reputation of the Cornish or Pembrokeshire coasts."

"Growing up, I’d wandered the same beaches, sand dunes and pinewoods, picking up mermaid’s purses and razorbill clamshells, and gazing out on clear days to Snowdonia to the south, and Blackpool Tower and the Lakeland fells to the north. Yet it had never occurred to me to write down things about these places, my experiences there or my feelings about them."

“It turns out Sprackland had been frequenting my extended childhood backyard on a regular basis for even longer than me, but only decided to ‘honour’ them in writing once she knew that her daily encounters were soon to end with a move to London. As it has for Sprackland, the Sefton coast has become ‘an inner as well as an outer landscape, one I carry around in my head and explore in my imagination even when I’m far from home’.”

Image from Turning the Lens press release

Professor Coates' project, which explores the role of Britain's wildlife filmmaking sector, is in partnership with the BBC. You can read the press release to find out more about the project. 

The project is funded by the AHRC through our Research Grants scheme. If you would like to find out more about AHRC funding, you can visit our funding pages.


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