Common Ground or Private Park: Whose Nature (writing) is it anyway?

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There is a new sub-genre in literary circles, or to be more exact, in literary natural history criticism writing circles: it is called Mac-stabbing. This chiefly involves critics and other writers taking to task either, or both of Robert Macfarlane and Helen Macdonald for being successful.

This is done by way of questioning and reevaluating ‘Nature Writing’ or so-called ‘New Nature Writing’. I say so-called, because, as the author Melissa Harrison has recently pointed out in her blog about the matter, this argument in many respects is a creation of publisher’s marketing departments. However what could easily be a dull, industry centric debate over categorisation, has in the hands of some critics turned personal.

The following is my take on this subject as a reader. I am no expert on either the writing or the nature parts of the debate, but as a book lover I dislike it when people start making up absolutist rules about who can write about something and how they should do it (especially when, within their own articles, they exempt themselves from their own regulations).

Recently both Mark Cocker, in the New Statesman and Richard Smyth in the TLS have written articles on ‘Nature Writing’. (Smyth’s TLS article seems to have been taken down as of June 2016 – though he expounds similar views in this piece for The New Humanist adding Phillip Hoare, Melissa Harrison, Rob Cowen and Roger Deakin as targets, as well as sniping at Robert Macfarlane – again. ).

Cocker’s Death of the naturalist: why is the “new nature writing” so tame? at least has the virtue of a point of view. Smyth in a condescending piece entitled: The limits of Nature Writing, manages to sound both negative and smug without really saying anything worthwhile. Smyth in setting out to demonstrate these  ‘limits’ ends up adopting a contradictory overview, which at once manages to suggest that there is a right and wrong type of Nature Writing, (examples are provided), yet also claims that the genre shouldn’t be exclusive.

The critic does this essentially by producing a list of writers he disapproves of then compares them unfavourably with those whom he does. One of his chief criticisms is that many other writers try too hard to express accurately what they are seeing or feeling:

“too much modern nature writing bears the smudges of the writers’ desperate groping for the mot juste. Page after page is dotted with too-carefully chosen “lyrical” words: sluice, knapped, sintering, root-nooks, moiling, fust – perfectly fine words in themselves, of course, but their cumulative effect is to make the writing reek overpoweringly of the lamp.”

Now there’s a raw, uncrafted paragraph for you… I find this a rather weird stance to take, I’ve always felt that looking for new, particular ways to talk about the world is a fundamental element of the writer’s job.

Smyth complains also of portentous ‘Tolkien style’ use of gerunds (There’s a writer loathed by the type of literary critics and academics who love a proscriptive canon – stick that on ‘em too) , a practice which he, or his editor, feel obliged to explain to TLS readers as ‘the ing noun’. Smyth takes the use of the gerund form as a sign that the authors concerned are being patronising and exclusive; as is the use, or overuse of jargon words, which Smyth suggests also smacks of privilege and restriction. I’d suggest that using the correct terms for flowers, landscapes or animals is a good thing to do, as it assumes readers are not stupid, and either know, or may wish to learn, such terms and also lends writing a pleasing particularity.

Next – although indirectly via a quote from another reviewer in Ireland – he has a go at Helen Macdonald for using the natural world as a way to talk about personal grief. This presupposes that there are rules about such things and that it is somehow wrong for a book that engages with the natural world in some way, to also involve personal anecdote and feeling.

I hadn’t realised that there were fixed criteria applied to such things. From the blurb on my copy of H is for Hawk it was pretty clear that the book was about Helen Macdonald and Goshawks and TH White and grief. I didn’t mistake the book for the Observer Book of Goshawks and feel outraged by all the snot and tears.

After this, irritatingly, or hypocritically, or both, Smyth PORTENTOUSLY (he’s allowed to do this cos he’s a critic in the TLS) declaims to his dear readers that: “Criticism of a work about nature shouldn’t be seen as an exclusionary measure aimed at designating the work non-canonical: Not Nature Writing”

That is unless you write about yourself on a personal level in relation to Nature or are Robert Macfarlane. Another bug-bear that features in the review is writers who refer to other writers. Apparently if either of the Macs do this, it is not on, whereas liberal name-dropping of writers yourself for the purposes of a review is just dandy.

I can’t honestly say that Smyth’s article taught me much about any actual ‘limits’ of nature writing, other than that some contemporary writers don’t measure up to his rather arbitrary and inconsistent rules about what such books should and shouldn’t do. Overall the piece comes across as intellectual nose-thumbing with a similar Ya-Boo-Sucks tone to that of Private Eye’s pastiche Ted Hughes poems – ‘Owly Owly’ et al. Except Private Eye was funny.

You’re Welcome

Mark Cocker in his article does ask some serious questions about the purpose of Nature Writing, or ‘New Nature Writing’. For Cocker the danger is: “that nature writing becomes a literature of consolation that distracts us from the truth of our fallen countryside, or – just as bad – that it becomes a space for us to talk to ourselves about ourselves, with nature relegated to the background as an attractive green wash.”

This is a fair point, or at least it would be, if the whole world of natural history writing had been taken over by a bunch of poets using landscape and mega-fauna as convenient metaphors for their own personal tragedies – gaia as one gigantic pathetic fallacy. But this simply isn’t the case. I am also wary of the suggestion that ‘New Nature Writing’ doesn’t address, or even avoids the state of the environment. Certainly Macfarlane and Macdonald nowhere suggest otherwise. Indeed The Wild Places is in part about the loss in the British Isles of any extensive ‘wilderness’ areas. The fact that Macfarlane goes on to change his view about what might constitute the wild, isn’t the same as being in some kind of denial about the state of our planet.

Part of the problem is that Cocker’s vision of ‘fallen countryside’ assumes some kind of edenic state of perfection that has now been corrupted. Pollution, deforestation, our abuse and overuse of fossil fuels are very real and represent just some of the ways we have collectively laid-waste to the world. However, I don’t see why this has to mean that any writers addressing what remains other than in strictly scientific, political or ecological terms are in the wrong. There are many approaches to writing and many approaches to nature writing.

In particular Cocker dislikes some writers use of the term ‘re-enchantment’. In Cocker’s view, indulging in ‘re-enchantment’ means cloaking an innocent landscape, or environment, in literary finery and thus bestowing extraneous cultural meaning on a place through poetic description, or worse, referring to it though the lens of an earlier writer. This last is a practice that Cocker then proceeds to attack by invoking the Guardian’s Digested Read, thus showing his disapproval by quoting John Crace on ‘Macfarlish’ writing.

Aside from displaying a degree of inconsistency, if not hypocrisy, all this really shows is that Cocker doesn’t much like this approach to writing about place and nature, which is fair enough, but then he is welcome to read other works of natural history that are more fact based and empirical.

Cocker also makes some reasonable, if easy, point scoring comments, about the predominance of a certain type of writer within this genre – echoing Kathleen Jamie’s criticism of the ‘lone enraptured male‘ from her 2007 LRB review of ‘The Wild Places’. Macfarlane in this view is the archetypal LEM – strident, male, upper-middle-class, academic. Also curiously free to slope off and look at the world, seemingly unpestered by children or other domestic concerns.

Yet in Cocker’s hands this approach seems to be more about reviewing the man’s image, rather than his books. Of course Mark Cocker is not so distant in class and gender himself, but this doesn’t stop him from letting Macdonald off the hook for all that soppy, emotional stuff, because, well, she is a woman.

Irritating though it may be to some that Macfarlane’s endorsement, foreword or introduction now appears on so many books; surely the man is doing Nature Writing an enormous service by getting the likes of Nan Shepherd, J. A. Baker and many others reprinted and read by a hungry, new audience?

That said, the dominance of a particular class, gender and ethnicity in literature is a problem, and one that reaches far beyond Nature Writing, but is perhaps especially notable within this field. Catherine Buni explores the issue in an excellent, wide-ranging, essay in the LA Review of Books: Toward a wider view of nature writing. Here Buni finds that, whilst a lot of white, middle-class men who write about Nature are getting published, there are other voices out there with their own alternative perspectives. Who these other voices belong to, and how and why it is so much harder for them to be heard, is explored in some depth in Buni’s essay.

However, for Cocker the above isn’t really the central issue. His fundamental bugbear seems to be with the amorphous character of ‘New Nature Writing’ as a label itself, which he regards as an irritatingly flexible, catch-all category, into which many publishers assign work he dislikes, alongside other material that he does deem acceptable.

Broadly, from Cocker’s perspective, this means that ‘Nature Writing’ now includes far too much writing that features literary, artistic and emotional responses to landscape and nature. This is in contrast to the type of writing he prefers: science based, factual, environmental reporting: a kind of ‘professional’ natural history. However, instead of raging at publishers, Cocker appears to blame ‘New Nature Writing’ upon the authors.

So far as I can gather, the name for this slippery genre originates with Issue 102 of Granta: The New Nature Writing, and was coined by then editor Jason Cowley as a way to talk about a group of writers who shared certain common themes and interests in their work. Interestingly that particular issue features work by both Mark Cocker and Robert Macfarlane, amongst others. Sounding East blog has a detailed essay on Granta 102 and the writers and writing it brought together.

For Cocker it seems, ‘New Nature Writing’ shouldn’t be about human emotions, or literary and artistic responses to place, flora and fauna. Rather it should be about campaigning, being in the field, sounding warnings about everything that we – this selfish, careless species – are set to destroy in the world. This is an admirable sentiment, but surely all books that touch upon the natural world aren’t obliged to take this approach? Why lock the gates against variety and alternative ways of seeing things? I also suspect that many of the authors criticised for being associated with this genre, wouldn’t place themselves in it, or indeed claim to be first and foremost ‘Nature Writers’.

Essentially Cocker is irked that certain books designated by their publishers as Nature Writing don’t conform to his expectations of how such works should be written. As a result he ends up addressing philosophical differences, rather than critiquing the book or books in front of him.

Another tactic Cocker employs as part of his critique is to suggest a certain lazy repetitiveness in contemporary nature writing. In one section of his article Cocker expresses disappointment that some contemporary authors are writing about similar territory to that covered decades earlier by Richard Mabey in The Unofficial Countryside as if there is now no more to be said about the subject.

“An early work called The Unofficial Countryside (1973, recently reissued by Little Toller) was about those overlooked bastard landscapes that are at once industrial, urban and inhabited by wild plants or animals. The subject has subsequently been revisited by so many others that it is virtually a subgenre under the heading “edgelands”. Rob Cowen’s Common Ground, published in May, is the latest in this field.”

Mabey’s book is excellent and remains relevant today; indeed, his writing here and in more recent works continues to be highly respected and appreciated by those who read in and around nature writing. However it surely cannot be the case that a book published well over forty years ago should be taken as the last word on urban edgelands or ‘bastard landscapes’?  The critic makes himself sound peevish. I fail to see how writers today addressing similar themes are a problem for ‘New Nature Writing’. History and Science are constantly revisited and reinterpreted, why not ‘Nature’ and ‘Natural History’?

Cocker’s subsequent dismissive side-swipe at Rob Cowen’s Common Ground by lumping it into a sub-genre of ‘New Nature Writing’ is particularly unjust. I found it to be one of those rare books that forces you as a reader to see things afresh. Rather than simply describing what he sees during the course of regular forays into a relatively small edgeland territory on the fringes of Bilton in Harrogate, Cowen takes imaginative flights into the spirit of some of the creatures he encounters there.

By, in effect, becoming for a time a fox, a deer, a hare, a young girl, a retired older man, Cowen draws the reader inside this world in a visceral, hugely potent and memorable way. As a result reading the book transmits a rich, multi-sensory impression of a very specific single patch of ‘bastard countryside’ in North Yorkshire.

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For me Cowen’s experimental style, coupled with some wonderful description and at times emotionally charged narrative, lifted the book far beyond being some kind of whimsical nature notes about wildlife in a northern town.

It is also worth pointing out that Cowen’s book is very much grounded in a single place near to his home, in which he spends considerable time. A common criticism of ‘New Nature Writing’ – not unlike much First World authored travel-writing – is that the writer (usually male) typically sweeps into an environment far from where they live, prods a few locals – human or otherwise – to gather story material, before remarking sententiously on the place and fucking off out of there.

What I find most troubling about Cocker and Smyth’s apparent attitude is the presumption that there is room for only one type, THEIR, type of Nature Writing.
This is a black and white view that holds that there is a right and wrong kind of ‘Nature’ writing, in a world where science, art and emotion must never mix.

In this vision only the approved type of controlled, knowledgeable, but unemotional prose should be allowed in – anyone writing anything else can have nothing worthwhile to add to our understanding, beyond some superficial guff about how they feel about plants and animals and landscapes. In short these fanciful amateurs should get the hell out of the way and leave proper Nature Writing to the professionals.

Imagine that similar criteria were applied to writing about War, so only military or ex military types could write legitimately about it: in this world  Andy McNabb and Chris Ryan would be approved, but Tolstoy, Stephen Crane and Pat Barker for example, would be in Smyth’s terms ‘designated non-canonical’.

As a reader I find these distinctions pompous, limiting and utterly unnecessary. Perhaps, the truth is that there simply cannot be any single, definitive way to write about Nature any more than there can be one true way to write about anything.

Regardless of whether an author is male, female, black, white, an active environmentalist, trained scientist, practising poet, landscape punk or self-appointed elemental shaman, all they have is a personal, partial point of view. Even in instances where the writer’s output is based on extensive field-notes, close-observation and scientific study, the moment something is written down a level of interpretation and construction – ‘art’ comes into play. So whilst Cocker and Smyth may express preferences for particular schools of thought or ways of seeing, they are in no better position than Robert Macfarlane and Helen Macdonald, (or for that matter Kathleen Jamie, David Lindo or David Attenborough), to dictate an approved methodology for writing about ‘nature’: that is the true limit of Nature Writing.

Below is a brief selection of quotes from a variety of writers on ‘Nature’. Each taken from books I have enjoyed reading and from whom I believe that I have gained something and learned something. All use a number of writerly, stylistic techniques to express their thinking – for some it is simile, others personal opinion, quotation, the use of sub-clauses for qualification, or for dramatic effect – staccato punctuation. But which is the scientist? The environmentalist, the London-based novelist, the nature writer, the journalist? Which ones are by men? By women? And to what extent does that matter? The answers can be found at the foot of the page underneath the conclusion.

A in its natural habitat, the fresh-waters and estuaries of Europe and North Africa, the eel assumes two distinct forms. For most of its adult life it is olive green to yellowish-brown and has a snub nose. But when it has lived for some years, its snout grows sharper, its eyes larger, its sides acquire a silvery sheen, its back becomes black and all these changes signal a journey back to the sea.”

BThe upturned tree has shallow roots that bifurcate regularly, held up like a great hand blocking the way. It is hard to move through the forest because everywhere roots are tangled, and there are rotting logs across the path, some crusted with the satiny green of liverworts, others slick with damp moss. The browns and greens are unrelieved by splashes of colour; there is a sense of dimness, of almost oppressive growth.”

C “My own early encounter with the rook of our imagination makes me appreciate just how enticing the creature can be. Throughout our 5,000-year-old relationship with the species its mythic twin has given rise to a whole cycle of stories and fables, but what is striking is that the tales are told in a peculiarly English accent. When the writer Aubrey Seymour suggested that the rook’s hoarse call has ‘an essence of Old England about it’, he may have been paying unconscious homage to this ancient national trait.”

D “A wave of golden air was working its way down the meadow, wheeling as it went. It moved like smoke, a persistent, particulate cloud made up of flakes of tumbled gold. Pollen. It was June: too late for alder and hazel, too late for willow. I weighed up the options: nettle or dock, plantain, oilseed rape or – but it was less likely – pine. A pollen grain is identified by its architecture and ornamentation; it can be porous or furrowed, smooth or spiked.”

E We stand now where two roads diverge. But unlike the roads in Robert Frost’s familiar poem, they are not equally fair. The road we have long been traveling is deceptively easy, a smooth superhighway on which we progress with great speed, but at its end lies disaster. The other fork of the road — the one less traveled by — offers our last, our only chance to reach a destination that assures the preservation of the earth.”

To me all of the above are examples of informed, lucid, and in some cases, beautiful pieces of writing. Every one approaches their subject in a slightly different way, but all offer something valuable, interesting and memorable.

Way back when I was doing my A levels, I wrote an essay called ‘E.M. Forster and the failure to connect.’ Something about the author’s urgent desire to bridge divides, to reconcile seemingly oppositional ideas and ways of seeing the world, struck home. Although my teenage self clearly felt that Forster (in his novels at least) hadn’t succeeded in this progressive effort to unite different cultures and philosophies, I felt then, as I still tend to do, that he was right to try.

As a reader I have also always preferred writing that isn’t easy to pin down, or neatly categorise. I don’t believe ‘Nature Writing’ or ‘Natural History’ writing should be any different. Let’s not have a Nature Writing of Roundheads and Cavaliers. I’d rather have a mix of scientists who feel and poets and artists who protest, and use evidence and le mot juste. There will always, always be room on my shelves for books by scientists and poets, rationalists and dreamers – as often as possible butted right up against each other.

The Answers:
A Graham Swift, Waterland, William Heinemann,1983
B Richard Fortey, Life: An Unauthorised Biography, HarperCollins, 1997
C Mark Cocker, Crow Country, Vintage, 2007
D Olivia Laing, To the River, Canongate Books, 2011
E Rachel Carson, Silent Spring, Houghton Mifflin, 1962

Links & References

The limits of nature writing Richard Smyth, 06/05/2015
(The article appears to have been taken down as of June 2016,
but he’s at it again here
)

Death of the naturalist Mark Cocker

Robert Macfarlane responds to Mark Cocker in the New Statesman

Common Ground – Observer Review

Granta 102: The New Nature Writing

Manning the barricades: Melissa Harrison on ‘new’ nature writing

Caught By The River: Nina Lyon responds to Mark Cocker

Richard Mabey: In defence of nature writing

The Nature Writing Debate – A Meta Analysis
A smart, witty meta analysis (also pretty handy summation of the key points) of recent Nature Writing debates, by environmentalist Spike Harby – and a reminder that the writing bit tends to overtake the nature bit in all this

Sounding East Blog on Granta’s New Nature Writing Edition

LA Review of Books – Toward a wider view of Nature Writing – Catherine Buni
Lengthy essay on lack of diversity in published Nature Writing

Landscape Punk 3: Albion, I’m homesick now.
Gary Budden on the importance of a plurality of voices responding to landscape – ‘the whispering swarm’ – not just Academics or Little Englanders.

Common Ground, Rob Cowen, 2015, Hutchinson

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17 thoughts on “Common Ground or Private Park: Whose Nature (writing) is it anyway?

  1. I am a sucker for nature writing. I will read journals, how-to books, travel narratives…from Bartram’s Travels to…well, whatever is popular today. I prefer writing where nature is the focus…rather than the self-conscious “literary writing,” but that may be preference not criticism.

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  4. Thanks for the reading list. Clever set of quotes at the end – underpins your argument well. Macfarlane does a very measured and effective riposte in the NS a couple of weeks later. Conclusion: there’s room for everyone.
    If you don’t like it, leave on a train or a bus and read something else. Love the Collins Guide bit about H is for Hawk – yes, even I realised is wasn’t going to be about the finer points of indentifying raptors. The clue was sort of in the title.
    I write New New Nature articles (think pseudo-sub-genre): attempts at science, natural history, landscape history, local history, Macfarlish quotes, allegory, parody with the occasional garnish of the mot juste (well I like to think so) all woven into short stories. They get read by about – wait for it – 300 people. There is almost no feedback so they can’t be much use. Perhaps it’s the wrong type writing according the critics. But who cares provided there is always an opportunity for others to conrtribute – which there is.

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    • Thanks. Saw R Macfarlane’s response in NS – a very fair, open and reasoned come back I thought. What annoys me more than anything about this (and not just in Nature Writing) is the increasingly hysterical attempts at gatekeeping that go on once certain authors get established in a particular field. As you say, like it, don’t like or read it, but don’t act as though having a track record of published work/opinion on a given subject area entitles you to decide or define what anyone else who comes after can write or think about it.

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  5. Pompous gatekeeping is a good way of describing it but you have to think this is a self-rewarding circle – critics stirring things and inventing rules in order to be paid to write about rules and stir things-up. It’s all in the game and we can ignore or engage as we wish! I remember there were similar arguments about the Harry Potter books and you felt that rather then it being an honest interesting debate it was to bring down a popular writer.

    Meanwhile the reader enjoys the writing for what it is. I am not a nature writing expert but it strikes me that Macfarlane has always supported other writers, encouraged his readers to read past and forgotten writers and make their own journey through nature, landscape and writing.

    Excellent post and now, damn it, I have more books to add to my list. Common Ground looks interesting.

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    • I agree there’s an element of navel gazing to the whole thing – my piece included. I just felt from a reader’s perspective that some of the commentary was unfair and simply not accurate.

      If similar ‘rules’ were applied to say writing on war and only soldiers could write about it then Andy McNabb would be ok, but Tolstoy, Stephen Crane and Pat Barker would not.

      I think in any area, activity that gets more people reading and engaged is a good thing.

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  8. This is nothing new. The Revd. J.G. Wood – the Victorian naturalist whose biography I am writing – was often attacked and derided for being a populist by ‘professional’ scientific writers, but what they really disliked was his popularity with the public, and the commercial success that they didn’t have. And I enjoy both Macfarlane and Macdonald.

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  9. I could not agree more with this. Robbie Cowen has compared this debate to the emergence of new fold in the 1960s – preconceived and unwritten ‘rules’ being challenged by new practitioners, who were either unaware of these rules’ existence, or much less mindful of their supposed pre-eminence. As a reader, these books are firing my imagination and sending me to others (e.g. Nan Shepherd, J.A. Baker, John Stewart Collis et al), and that has to be a good thing.

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    • Thanks for the reminder: forgotten all about J. Stewart Collis (Worm Forgives the Plough). There’s a good’un.
      Add Grey of Falloden (Charm of Birds) and you’ve two examples of writing at its best: clear, totally unaffected and leaving plenty of space for the reader to fill in with their own thoughts.

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