Why do we love British nature writing?
British nature writing seems to be in a very good place indeed. Over the last fifteen or so years, what the author Robert Macfarlane describes as “A 21st-century culture of nature” has found expression in a crop of award-winning books, such as Helen Macdonald's H is for Hawk and Amy Liptrot's The Outrun, along with Macfarlane's own work. Writing in the New Statesman, he described this surge of interest as being: “Born of anxiety and anger but passionate and progressive in its temperament, involving millions of people and spilling across forms, media and behaviours." But while this current ‘turn’ to nature may be undeniable, we still have very little sense of where the genre of nature writing came from and how it has developed.
“There hasn't yet been a comprehensive study of British nature writing, which seems extraordinary. There is a huge gap in academic study,” says Research Assistant Pippa Marland, one of the key academics in a major AHRC-funded appraisal of the genre, Land Lines: Modern British Nature Writing. “This could be because the genre has traditionally been under appreciated and sometimes even ignored.” To correct this critical neglect, Land Lines will consider nature writing from the beginning of modernity to the present day. It is a collaboration between the universities of Leeds, St Andrews and Sussex, and is funded by the AHRC. “We have specialists in different periods of literature, so we have an expert on Romanticism, an expert on the Victorian period, an expert on Modernism, and an expert on contemporary nature writing” says Marland. “They are each writing their chapters separately, but also working together to identify the overarching themes of the genre, and finding ways of putting the different literary eras into dialogue.” The study will start with the eighteenth century author Gilbert White, whose work coincided with the onset of modernity, and explore questions that run right through to the current period.
It will examine aspects of the genre such as: How has nature been perceived over time? How do the issues and problems of modernity emerge? Can we look at it as a moral form? Does it give us guidance on how we should live in the world? How does it reflect ideas of Britishness? And are we beginning to see more global perspectives emerging? “One of the preconceptions we’d like to challenge is the idea that nature writing is simplistic,” says Marland. “Our feeling is that it is actually more complex than it is generally perceived to be, and that it reflects conflict, right from the beginning. "You might have a desire to describe nature – but authors also know that that is impossible, because, ultimately, nature eludes representation. How do they resolve that tension?
“We will also be casting a critical eye over certain aspects of the genre; for example, we’ll be thinking about why there is an apparent lack of published non-fiction prose nature writing by black and minority ethnic writers, and asking whether nature writing might sometimes adopt the role of a nostalgic, heritage form rather than one which is politically and environmentally engaged.”
Reflecting the genre's current popularity, Land Lines will also feature a large amount of public engagement work, including a museum exhibition, public talks, school visits, a family fun day – and a poll asking the British public to vote for their favourite nature book.
“It will be fascinating to see what turns out to be the nation's most popular book,” says Marland. “Will it be something like Gavin Maxwell's Ring of Bright Water, Dorothy Wordsworth's journals or maybe John Clare's poetry? Or will the favourite come from the very strong field of contemporary nature writing? “Our outreach programme is really about exploring the current situation that we find ourselves in. We are aware that this contemporary resurgence of interest is taking place against a backdrop of a whole range of environmental issues. As a result we wanted to engage the public with questions about what nature writing they like to read – and whether or not it has changed their view of the natural world.” Or, as research lead Professor Graham Huggan, University of Leeds, says: “The project hopes to foster public discussion about what it means to inhabit a technologically embellished but ecologically impoverished natural world.” Marland believes that one of the interesting opportunities offered by the Land Lines project will be the chance to take the long view and interrogate why certain questions emerge with real force in particular periods of nature writing, and fade away in others.
“One of the things we are looking at is the way in which the balance between two key components of the form – natural history and autobiography - shifts over time,” says Marland, “and another is the question of how more recent writing responds to issues such as species loss and climate change.
“We want to participate in a conversation that will extend beyond academia and really encourage debate around how we interact with nature and what the role of nature writing might be in helping us to negotiate our relationship with the world in which we live.”