UK's favourite nature book: Celebrating the range of UK nature writing
A poll to find Britain's favourite piece of nature writing was a “hugely valuable experience in research terms”, according Dr Pippa Marland who represents the team behind it.
The poll was launched on the BBC’s Autumnwatch and in the October edition of BBC Wildlife Magazine on the 25 October 2017. The public were invited to nominate their favourite nature books, which were then whittled down to a shortlist of ten – and this was put to an online vote.
On 31 January it was announced that Chris Packham's Fingers in the Sparkle Jar had taken the top spot, followed by Henry Williamson’s classic, Tarka the Otter and Rob Cowen's Common Ground.
“It was fascinating to see the huge range of genres and types of book that people felt were 'nature writing' and that they were inspired by,” says Dr Pippa Marland from Land Lines, a research project exploring British nature writing from the late eighteenth century to the present day, funded by the Arts and Humanities Research Council (AHRC).
“There were over 270 books nominated and they covered novels, science fiction, prose writing, poetry, children's books – even an AA guide to the countryside. It was a massive range of literature.”
One of the most interesting aspects of the comments that supported the public nominations was how frequently people referred to the importance of reading about nature in childhood and how this had influenced how they felt about nature later in life, even encouraging them to become environmentalists.
“I think that is very important and I was delighted to see how successful The Lost Words by Robert McFarlane and Jackie Morris was,” says Dr Marland.
The Lost Words book is a joyful celebration of words that describe the natural world but are now disappearing from children's lives – literally, as they have recently been excised from the Oxford Junior Dictionary. Words like dandelion, otter, bramble and acorn.
Although the book was only published four months ago it has already sold over 75,000 copies and won two literary awards.
Coincidentally the importance of nature writing for children was further emphasised by the success of a crowd funding campaign to get a copy of The Lost Words into every school in Scotland, started by Jane Beaton, a school bus driver and travel consultant from Strathyre, Stirling, and which coincided with the nature writing poll.
“It was a wonderful thing,” says Dr Marland. “While it wasn't directly related to Land Lines, I think it reflects this sense of how childhood reading shapes adults' experience of nature. It was a reaction against the idea that words about nature are being omitted from children's dictionaries and that they need these words to give them a grounding in the natural world.
“Children need an opportunity to access nature, both physically and through literature, in order to nurture in them a love of the natural world.”
Interestingly, the poll also reflected the current popularity of nature writing, with many of the shortlisted titles – and two of the top three – having been written since the turn of the millennia.
It also emphasised our interest in nature writing that helps us discover the world immediately around us.
“Both Chris Packham's book and Rob Cowen's book deal with bits of the countryside that lie on our doorstep,” says Dr Marland. “Fingers in the Sparkle Jar is about the landscape on the fringe of Southampton, Hampshire, and the area written about in Common Ground is on the edge of Harrogate in Yorkshire. Neither are conventionally 'wild'.”
Researchers were also interested to see that the winning books evoke – and celebrate – deeply personal connections with nature. “Even though Tarka the Otter is a novel, I do think it reflects something of Henry Williamson’s own relationship with otters. I think he may have had a pet otter or another otter that he was close to and that it escaped and he spent a great deal of time trying to track it down.
“Chris Packham's book goes into a lot of detail about his relationship with his beloved kestrel, which died. And in Common Ground Rob Cowen spends a great deal of time and effort trying to imagine his way into the lives of animals.”
The broad spread of books chosen by the public also demonstrates that nature writing can be challenging, it can be dark, bloody – and isn't necessarily the cosy form of literature people sometimes assume it is. Many of these books are pushing at the boundaries of the form in style and content.
“What we'd really like to do is some more research with some of those who responded to the poll and find out a bit more about how their reading has influenced how they relate to and respond to nature as adults,” says Dr Marland.
“We're hugely grateful to everyone who got involved in what was a fascinating and a hugely valuable experience in research terms.”