The new pace of nature writing
With the close of nominations for the UK's favourite nature book fast approaching, BBC Wildlife Magazine's Ben Hoare discuses the new abundance of UK nature books.
Every autumn a wonderful event in Stamford, Lincolnshire brings together authors, poets, artists, musicians, film-makers, scientists, conservationists, campaigners and more to reflect on nature and what it means to us. New Networks for Nature is always an inspiring couple of days. This time, in the town’s genteel arts centre and down the pub, I canvassed people’s opinions about nature writing.
Why is writing about the natural world experiencing such a dramatic flowering in Britain, I wondered? What is the source of this tremendous outpouring of passion and creativity? And does it show any sign of waning?
The answer came back as startlingly loud and clear as a wren pouring its little heart out on a frosty morning. Our great and unrivalled tradition of nature writing continues to go from strength to strength.
Fellow ‘networkers for nature’ – including several household names and a couple of leading publishers of nature writing – added that the surge shows no sign of slowing down. Nature writing reflects our love for the wild world, they said, and a fundamental human need to engage with, make sense of and celebrate nature.
Nature writing is a response to loss, too – of meadows and marshes, hedgerows and heaths, ponds and peatbogs and many, many other wild places. “It’s been important in us dealing with that sense of loss,” wrote Mike Collins of the Arts and Humanities Research Council. “Both in terms of connection with nature but also the disappearance of species and the threat to our green spaces.”
Bookshops now have whole sections devoted to nature writers, and there has been a mushrooming of nature-writing courses, seminars and talks. The Wainwright Prize, established in 2014, is helping to propel nature writers and their work into the limelight. Nature writers are invited to speak at music festivals. Some authors – Helen Macdonald, Amy Liptrot, Robert Macfarlane and Chris Packham, for instance – have made the bestseller lists.
In Britain, nature writing has a long history, going back to naturalist Gilbert White in the late 18th century and peasant-poet John Clare in the early 19th century. It has encompassed great fiction, such as Henry Williamson’s Tarka the Otter (1927) and Richard Adams’ Watership Down (1972), and great memoirs, such as Gavin Maxwell’s Ring of Bright Water (1960). And it is not just prose – there are great nature poems and polemics as well.
But the pace of publication has changed. The sheer quantity of nature writing we are now enjoying is a relatively recent phenomenon that has gathered speed over the past 10–15 years.
When it was first published in 1973, Richard Mabey’s landmark book The Unofficial Countryside – which explored scruffy ‘edgelands’ such as bomb sites, urban canals and rubbish tips – was not surrounded by shelf after shelf of similar titles. Neither was Roger Deakin’s equally important and influential book Waterlog (1999), about the joys of wild swimming.
Something else has changed. As Mark Cocker wrote in the November 2017 issue of BBC Wildlife Magazine: “One significant achievement of the new flood of books is to create more diversity among authors in terms of their identity, gender, age and social background.” Not before time.
So it is an opportune moment for the Arts and Humanities Research Council to be organising a bold initiative to discover the UK’s best-loved books about nature. Working with researchers at the universities of Leeds, St Andrews and Sussex, the AHRC has launched Land Lines, a two-year research project into nature writing since the 1780s. And it wants your input.
To take part, simply share your favourite book here and share it with the Twitter hashtag #favnaturebook. You can nominate until 30 November.