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Not since John Clare lambasted Keats for metropolitan sentimentality has there been such an unwarranted attack on the integrity of nature writers. In a letter written in 1830, nine years after Keats’s death, the poet of the fields accused the cockney Romantic of portraying “nature as she … appeared in his fancys & not as he would have described her if he had witnessed the things he describes”.
I accept that somewhere in Poole’s essay there is a legitimate questioning of the way that nature has been commercialised and commodified, as day-trip redemption, off-prescription Prozac. But that isn’t what is memorable about his essay. I’ve worked in this area for 40 years, and though I am not personally incriminated, I feel insulted and traduced by it, and I know enough of the way this area of literary exploration has been evolving to raise a voice of complaint on behalf of my colleagues. Poole’s phrases “recent nature writing” and “nature writers” amount to an indiscriminate homogenisation; current nature writing is the broadest of secular churches. Oliver Morton’s engaging personal saunter through the world of photosynthesis, Eating the Sun, for example, might be more properly labelled imaginative science writing, just as Robert Macfarlane‘s literal wanderings in his masterpieceThe Old Ways is really imaginative travel literature.
Yet there we all seem to be grouped as a kind of cult. Most of us prefer to think of ourselves just as writers, who simply wish to embrace a rather larger than usual cast of characters, the other beings and landscapes with which we share the planet – and to respect them as subjects not simply objects. But nature as active subject implies relationships, not simply objective descriptions (that’s “natural history writing”), and the difficult work of marrying truth to one’s emotional and imaginative responses with truth to an organism’s own life.
All this, and the assumption that there is something close to “mind” in nature seems to be anathema to Poole. Perhaps he would accept “intelligence” instead. Let me give a couple of examples of what I mean. Today, a neighbour brought me a goldfinch’s nest, whose foundation was a perfectly selected and fashioned circle of chicken wire. It wasn’t strong enough to hold the nest up in a gale but it was a great idea. And all this last hot week the oaks have been putting out their pinkish lammas shoots, responses to foliage lost by predatory insects. If there is more predation the oaks will begin talking to each other through airborne pheromones, which increase the bitter tannins in their leaves.
Intelligence in nature is this deep-time, evolved capacity to adapt, to be creatively resilient. Which is why Tim Dee‘s insight from the forthcomingFour Fields, mocked by Poole, that “The fog was everywhere, but thickest on the fen, for that is the lowest, ground and the air knows it – the land has been underwater before” is more than a metaphor. It’s a recognition of the appropriate, and therefore intelligent, behaviour of matter, and that landscapes have “memories” embedded in their structure that influence their present environs, their future destinies – and the humans that pass through them. If Poole has never experienced this, he needs to get out more.
Writing about this is difficult and skiddy work, prone to anthropomorphism. Fortunately there has been a strong strain of self-interrogation in much recent nature writing. About, for instance, the relation between human and natural creativity, given a huge boost by recent sonogram analysis of birdsong. We may know why birds sing, but what they sing, in bird-time and bird-pitch, is something else. “The loudest song means the fittest birds,” is the kind of oafish verdict handed down on Springwatch. But what sound like simple single notes to our poor ears resolve at slow speed and transponded pitch into dense and kaleidoscopically shifting tone poems. Does that make birdsong music, or do we claim that category of organised noise purely for our self-conscious creations ?
Attempts to move from human-centredness to more inclusive and empathetic points of view are philosophically and practically fraught, involving the biggest question of all, whether language (and therefore our writing) is complicit in humans’ supposed alienation from nature. I fell into this trap myself, once portraying a barn owl hunting over a dusk hayfield as a symbol of the change from day to night, part feathered shuttle, part winged flail. It was an appropriation to suit my own poetic conceit, an insult to the delicacy of the real bird. Now I warm towards the concept of neighbourliness as a template with which to approach and write about our relations with our fellow organisms. It permits concern, shared circumstance, even love from afar, but demands no reciprocity.
The writing, not just its subject, is part of this neighbourly ecological bond. Jonathan Bate, in the UK’s first indigenous work of eco-criticismThe Song of the Earth wrote that “the dream of deep ecology will never be realised on earth, but our survival as a species may be dependent on our capacity to dream it in the work of our imagination.”
This makes Poole’s jibe that “nature writers do tend to whitewash the non-human world as a place of eternal sun-dappled peace and harmony” even more baffling. It’s plain he has never read Kathleen Jamie’s sombrely beautiful and unflinching pathology room meditation on mortality and nature’s human predators in Sightlines.
To the extent that nature writing has a common spring, it is defiantly anti-pastoral. It emerged not out of a desire to return to some ruralist golden age, but to repudiate such fantasies – the tweeness of “country lifestyle” magazines, the soulless, technically obsessed imperiousness of natural history television, the belief that agriculture and its colonial embodiment, “the countryside”) are unimpeachable sources of moral value. Hence the passion for the unfarmed wild, for the small, the particular and the local, and the affirmation that “new” nature writing was not new at all, but embedded in a long tradition. And though distant walking is currently the favoured mode to revelations about the self and the land, for much of the past two centuries it was rootedness, staying put, which was regarded as the key. The Rev Gilbert White, whose The Natural History of Selborne (1789) was the first work of literary nature writing, spent almost his whole life in that small Hampshire village. His one book was, for its time, a revolutionary exercise in modernism: non-fiction organised in the epistolary style of experimental 18th-century fiction, and daring to pay the same attention and respect to crickets as churchgoers. John Clare, whose anthems of solidarity to his fellow commoners of all species are another beacon, panicked when he was away from Helpston and “out of his knowledge”. Ronald Blythe (no mean nature writer himself) has lauded Clare’s “indigenous eye” and “his extraordinary ability to see furthest when the view was strictly limited”.
The baton was taken up again after the second world war, and JA Baker, obsessively walking a small stretch of the Essex coast in a search of peregrine falcons, became the single most important inspiration of all who followed. The Peregrine reinvents the language of natural metaphor, and achieves the remarkable metamorphosis of man into predatory bird. Baker’s contemporary. the TV journalist Kenneth Allsop, was the other improbable inspiration for some of us older scribes. His Sunday Times columns (which cost him his job) were full of incandescent anger and a style that was more New York jazz critic than polite, forelock-touching country diarist. And he introduced, in a prize-winning semi-fictional memoir (Adventure Lit their Star), the idea that the city was a place where rich engagements with nature were to be made.
The fact that there is now a flourishing strand of urban nature writing (for instance Paul Farley and Michael Symmons Roberts’s Edgelands) is final proof of the absurdity of Poole’s pastoral charge. As I write, in a blessedly hot July, that icon of the urban wild, the swift, has returned to its brick and concrete parishes. Where they went in the bleak weather of May and early June is as tantalising a mystery as their return is a benediction. (“They’re back”, Ted Hughes famously wrote, “which means the globe’s still working … “). Now the dark scimitars will be scything across north London back-to-backs, screaming at knee level through the alleys of Granada, braving urban war zones across the Middle East. I once saw their flickering shapes crossing the commentator on a live TV broadcast of the shelling of Beirut, an unavoidable allegory about different ways of being alive. Finding words to bridge that divide between the otherness of nature – a swift sleeping on the wing 5,000ft up, and the life-choosing immediacy, the intimate familiarity of the rush of wings past the face – is what most nature writers are striving to do, not wallow in some vanished pastoral world.
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