By Hughie Rogers-Coltman
The Making of Poetry
Adam Nicolson, Harper Collins, 2019
Harvest: The Hidden Histories of Seven Natural Objects
Edward Posnett, The Bodley Head, 2019
What do we see when we look at nature? Place almost anyone in a forest or on top of a mountain and their reaction will be broadly the same: a sense of peace, perspective, and ‘reconnection’. Perhaps no other phenomenon provokes such a universal and apparently essential response. In an increasingly secular world, nature has clung to its mythology; more than ever, nature is appreciated in a way that transcends political, social, intellectual and generational divides. Where other historical centres of shared value (religion, family, sexuality, nationalism) have unravelled into the tangle of individual narratives that is modern Western culture, nature has remained accessible to all, a site of ahistorical and essential meaning.
Symptomatic of this grand narrative around our relationship with nature is the rise of the ‘new nature writing’. Having seen a rise in popularity over the last fifteen or so years, the British school of nature writing is epitomised in the writings of Robert MacFarlane, and Helen McDonald’s 2014 bestseller H is for Hawk. Due to the success of these two writers, among others, nature books have become perhaps the defining publishing trend of the 2010s. The structural logic of these narratives is often similar. A pensive middle-class narrator sets out on a journey into the British countryside, there to ‘discover’ something (usually some forgotten or ancient feature of it) and in the process learns something about their own nature, and about ancient and universal human values.
MacFarlane has made his name publishing books in this formula, and the language of the blurbs to his books illustrates the general concept: The Old Ways is ‘a book about walking as a journey inwards’, The Wild Places ‘mixes history, memory and landscape’. The i’s review of Underland calls it ‘a story not just of nature but of human nature’. The emphasis is always on the organicism of the exchange between man and nature, as if to immerse oneself in nature is necessarily to get closer to one’s truest self.
It’s always been the case that when a trend in publishing emerges, it gets flogged to death, eventually reaching a level of peak saturation before dying out. We’re living through peak nature writing. A perusal of Waterstones’s nature section is enough to get a sense of the formulaicism that has crept into the genre. There are currently eight separate books on sale about giving up city life to become a shepherd. Even the covers are similar: pastel green fields, a naïve drawing of an animal, Helvetica bold title.
It’s easy to imagine literary historians a century from now looking at the nature writing of the 2010s the in the same way that they look at eighteenth-century Gothic novels, or Victorian sensation fiction today: genre writing that repackages the same narratives for an audience who know what they’re getting. Of course, all genres follow a formula, but this genre’s specific claim to the subjective and the spontaneous, coupled with repeated books on the topic, makes the new nature writing seem especially specious.
The homogeneity of these narratives implies a shared philosophy. They all come back to affirming the intrinsic value of the natural world, and the idea that to connect with nature is to shed the constructed values placed upon us by modern society. Almost as numerous as books in the new nature writing are think pieces (the Guardian has published dozens) pondering its newfound popularity. The overriding consensus is that the fascination with experiencing nature is a backlash against the role of technology in our lives, and a manifestation of environmental anxieties.
One word appears again and again in these discussions of the genre: ‘reconnection’. It’s an interesting word to use. Why the ‘re-’? It implies that in connecting with nature we are returning to something – that there is a state of nature where we belong by birth, and that accessing that state is a process of regression, of stripping back the cultural norms that have been put upon us.
But does experiencing the natural world bring us closer to this state of human nature? Slavoj Žižek, paraphrasing several other post-Marxist thinkers, recently said that ‘what we understand by nature is something that is always historically overdetermined, and a part of our social practice’. That which seems ‘natural’ to us is often actually a product of cultural conditions.
It seems telling, for example, that analyses of the new nature writing so frequently alight upon the idea of ‘reconnection’ in their attempts to describe the phenomenon. This implies a shedding of modern practices in the pursuit of a past state of consciousness. But the word itself is very much a product of its own time. A search of its usage history shows that it was barely used prior to the 1980s, where it saw a sudden and almost tenfold increase in popularity. ‘Reconnection’, in its present sense, is a product of the digital age. What appears to us to be a breaking away from modern technological life is in fact an extension of its logic – a concept that only makes sense within this cultural moment.
Looking at the new nature writing in light of this idea, the underlying vision starts to look more like an ideology than an expression of consciousness. Kathleen Jamie (herself a nature writer and poet) writes the following in a review of MacFarlane’s The Wild Places:
What’s that coming over the hill? A white, middleclass Englishman! A Lone Enraptured Male! From Cambridge! Here to boldly go, ‘discovering’, then quelling our harsh and lovely and sometimes difficult land with his civilised lyrical words.
Though she says this in jest, and rightly points out elsewhere the beauty of MacFarlane’s writing, Jamie makes an important point. The reaction of the Lone Enraptured Male is not an immediate one: it is mediated and ideological. MacFarlane, a fellow of Emmanuel College, Cambridge, observes British landscape through the lens of a thousand other perceptions – from Wordsworth to Gainsborough to Housman to Countryfile – all of which form his own response.
This is not to question the value of MacFarlane’s writings. In terms of his descriptive power he arguably stands among the very greatest writers of the British countryside, and it should also be acknowledged that his recent work Underland moves away from the Lone Enraptured Male formula. But we ought not to lose sight of the ideology underpinning his vision. There’s a fallacy at the core of the new nature writing, which is the belief that if we immerse ourselves enough in nature, and put enough literal distance between ourselves and civilisation, we will discover our true, undiluted selves. More often than not, the discoveries we make are merely reinforcements of an existent figure, be it the Lone Enraptured Male or any other cultural construction.
This might seem a bit nebulous. Why does it matter that these writers – who write beautifully and originally, with a clear and admirable passion for the natural world – have an ideology behind their writings? But the risk they run in positioning themselves into this purportedly organic relationship with nature is glossing over the realities thereof – becoming so ensconced in their ideological rapture at nature that they lose sight of it. What then emerges is a literature that does not seek to preserve nature itself, but a mythologised version of it.
Two nature books published this summer have taken an approach that seems conscious of this problem. The first of these is Adam Nicolson’s The Making of Poetry. Nicolson, who has won the Wainwright nature writing prize and written several books exploring the British countryside, here examines the influence that place had on the Wordsworths and Samuel Taylor Coleridge when they lived together in Somerset, 1797-8. Many of the poems that they composed in this period would be grouped together in Lyrical Ballads, the ground-breaking collection that the two poets first published in 1798, and which is often viewed as the definitive starting point of English Romanticism.
Nicolson decided to rent a farmhouse for the summer in Adscombe, near to Nether Stowey, the village at the edge of the Quantock Hills where William and Dorothy Wordsworth moved in early 1797, at the invitation of Samuel Taylor Coleridge. He intersperses his telling of their story with passages of his own, describing his wanderings in the footsteps of those poets and his own responses to the landscapes that had inspired them.
It is here, I think, that the book’s true value lies. At times, his prose blurs the line between his own narrative and that of the 1790s. One sentence sees Coleridge setting off to climb a hill in 1798, the next sees Nicolson reclining at the top of it in 2018, observing the scene with the consciousness of those that did so before him. In allowing his own experiences to bleed into those of the Romantics, Nicolson makes a crucial acknowledgement. He shows awareness that his experience of this environment is not – and can never be – a spontaneous and natural one. His experience will inevitably be a contingent product:
I was merely doing what Wordsworth and Coleridge, by some subterranean routes, flowing through the thousands of capillaries of Western culture, had taught me to do.
Crucially, Nicolson’s recognition of his debt to the Romantics does not prevent him from indulging in lengthy and beautiful responses to the countryside:
The pigeons strum their guitars below you. A buzzard drifts and flickers on the wind … And the streams continue to play their distant music, only heard if you pause for a while and suppress the sound of your own body moving on the heather or the bracken, allowing that whispered dropping of the water to come up towards you from the depths of the oakwood …
Here Nicolson seems deep in the MacFarlane school, indulging the senses in a total experience of nature. But unlike MacFarlane and his peers, he does not leave this experience unexamined. He situates his rapture at nature within the contexts that produced it:
But this is the difference made by the poets’ having been here, having heard all of this and felt the significance of it … Being here and being involved with this world, recognising that others have been here in that same way, is what seems good.
The notion that nature is undefinably but intrinsically meaningful, which pervades so much of the new nature writing, is replaced by one that is both more individual and more inclusive. The meaning that Nicolson finds in nature is not lofty or spiritual, but humanistic and social – and all the more valuable for it.
Edward Posnett’s Harvest is similarly conscious of the assumptions that underpin modern nature writing. The subtitle and premise of the book is ‘the hidden histories of seven natural objects’. Each of the seven chapters tells the story of a different rare natural resource, and of Posnett’s journey to trace these resources’ ‘harvests’ (the processes whereby they are extracted and utilised by human beings). It’s a journey that takes him all over the world, from examining the risky excavation of edible birds’ nests deep in a cave in Borneo, to observing the vicuña (a kind of South American camel whose silky wool lines the coats of billionaires) and their penniless herders in rural Peru.
Posnett was initially inspired after hearing the story of the eider duck. Eiders are a rare breed of North Atlantic duck that are found in Iceland. For centuries they and their habitat have been protected by Icelanders who gather their down. Eiderdown is an almost supernaturally lightweight and warm substance that has become a favoured commodity of the global super-rich. The only way to maintain this market, however, is through the traditional means of harvesting: protecting the ducks’ environment, and, once a year, taking the excess eiderdown from their nests as a kind of rent. It’s an arrangement that benefits both the ducks and the Icelanders, and Posnett sees in it the possibility of a new, symbiotic relationship between man and nature. The essay he wrote on the eider duck won the Financial Times Essay Prize and a book deal. The remaining six essays in the book attempt to find other examples of symbiosis between man and nature, to track man’s exchanges with nature at disparate spots the world over, and to uncover the links between them.
And yet, those links never quite arise. The beauty of this book is that it doesn’t fall into the trap of spinning itself into easily digestible wisdom. Posnett may see that the eider ducks and Icelanders have something like a co-reliant relationship, but when he tries to transplant the principles of that relationship onto other harvests, it is the differences, rather than the similarities, that shine through the most.
He visits the last harvester of byssus or ‘sea silk’, the fibres derived from the Pinna Nobilis mollusc in Sardinia. This is an old woman, Chiara, known as ‘the maestro’, who knows the secret places to dive for these rare and protected molluscs. What gradually dawns upon narrator and reader is that this woman is almost certainly getting her silk from elsewhere, and that the appealing narrative that she chooses to project, of an ancient and symbiotic relationship between herself and the sea, is a carefully constructed lie. Anyone can see this, in fact, but the people surrounding her, and the tourists that flock to her village, choose to believe her narrative, wholesome as it is. The book is filled with these little moments of bathos, where the narrator’s wish to reach a grand narrative about man and nature hits against inconvenient truths.
Just as Nicolson recognises that his reaction to nature is a product of cultural values, so too does Posnett acknowledge the tiny and manifold conditions that dictate each exchange with nature – not least his own. This is the maturity that sets these writers apart from others in the new nature writing. They choose to dwell, not on what is transcendent in nature, but what is difficult and conditional, exposing the underlying structures that govern our responses. And both do this without compromising on the beauty and lyricism associated with the genre. These are two different but similarly thoughtful works. Both should be seen as an important step forward in the genre.
HUGHIE ROGERS-COLTMAN reads English at Hertford College. His interests include, but are not limited to, Rolo yoghurts, UK garage and The Baron in Cowley.
Art by Tara Kelly