I wonder what the collective noun for nature-writers would be? A ‘Concern’, an ‘Observance’, a ‘Disappearance’, or perhaps, inevitably, a ‘Nostalgia’?
Last weekend I was lucky enough to attend several events at the inaugural Balham Literary Festival, held at the Bedford Arms. The festival’s title – ‘A Way of Being in the World’ comes from a quote taken from Anne Michaels’ review of Robert Macfarlane’s Landmarks and it gives a clue as to the kind of writers featured. On one level many, if not all of them, could loosely be grouped together, in that much-debated category, as nature writers. Nonetheless, as Susie Nicklin made clear in her introduction to the festival programme, it isn’t nearly so simple as that:
“we see them as interpreters, examining the links between humans and the places they inhabit and the species with which they co-mingle. Some are long range travellers, some inhabit a small radius with intensity, many take physical and/or artistic risks and some zoom inwards, into the human psyche and its relationship with the universe, real or imagined.”
Based on the line-up, I couldn’t be certain that all members of the miscellaneous cast were the same species of writer, although a shared devotion to noticing things and note-taking suggests that they belong to the same family. However defined, this was a gathering that excited me enough to prompt the purchase of a weekend ticket and some frantic blagging of baby sitters.
I didn’t manage to attend every event, but the ones I did get to provided a heady mix of the fascinating, the intriguing and the inspirational; with a pinch of melancholy thrown in. Threaded through them all, and touched upon both directly and indirectly, was the idea of the Anthropocene. This is a proposed new epoch to mark our current time: a period when human activity has become the dominant force on Earth, affecting ecology and geology at a planetary level.
First up, on Friday afternoon, was Rob Cowen discussing his best-selling book Common Ground. The author revealed how he came to discover and become obsessed with the area of edgeland in Bilton, Harrogate that the book centres upon. During the talk, and in questions afterwards, Cowen urged the audience to get out and find their own edgelands. He felt that while this type of landscape can be short-lived or temporary – often vanishing after being cleared for redevelopment – new examples do pop up, or reappear, in different locations constantly. As a result, there are always opportunities to discover and get to know such places, even though the exploration of them might entail some level of illicit crawling, ducking under, or climbing of fences.
All the while, as Rob Cowen spoke, trains rattled towards us in an upstairs room of the pub (as they did for all subsequent talks) – the railway bridge is almost level with the first floor here – before turning south and east following the curve of the tracks. This added greatly to the atmosphere, with these regular reminders of the city outside arriving like real-world, windowed versions of the Lumière brother’s film of the train arriving at La Ciotat,
During this opening talk, the standout moment for me was when Cowen passionately declared that if you were to play a game of Bird Top-trumps, the Swift is the only card worth having. “It can fly at an altitude of 20,000 feet, it’s the fastest bird on the wing – and yes people might disagree and talk about the Peregrine, but they’re wrong – that’s only in free fall. Swifts do it on the wing…”.
Next up, in the early evening, was International Nature and Travel Writing with Patrick Barkham, Helen Macdonald and Sara Wheeler in conversation with Susie Nicklin. This was an entertaining and wide ranging discussion, that considered how British Nature Writing is received abroad and how it compares with the literatures of other cultures.
Helen Macdonald shared a lovely anecdote about an incident on a trip to the USA during a book tour. Whilst staying in a hotel in Miami, the writer was interviewed via telephone by a British journalist when, halfway through a question, through the window she clocked some kind of raptor flying past and in her excitement dropped the phone and ran to it for a closer look. She then identified the bird as a swallow-tailed kite. Returning to the call Macdonald apologised and explained the cause of its abrupt interruption, the journalist drolly remarked that at least the incident was ‘on brand’.
Later in the session, travel writer Sara Wheeler told how she was once snowed into a tent in the Russian Arctic for days on end. To many this could have been a terrifying experience, but to Wheeler it presented a fantastic and unexpected opportunity to pick the brains of one of the world’s leading scientists who was trapped alongside her.
Rounding off the first day were folk duo Trevor Moss and Hannah-Lou, who helped demonstrate that bookish nature and landscape lovers are not necessarily also the most enthusiastic of gig-goers or dancers.
On Saturday morning there were tough choices to be made: Flâneurs in London and Paris, or Birds and Bees. These, to be followed by Extremes of Exploration, or Landscape and Atmosphere in Fiction.
For the early session I plumped for Sean Borodale and Tim Dee in conversation with Stephanie Cross. Borodale, who’s poetic Bee Journal covers two years in the life of a hive, talked about using notebooks as a kind of pop-up studio and warned that winter honey – from Ivy – sets hard and if eaten is ‘quite disgusting’.
Both writers had some fascinating things to say about the perception of time, in its relation to nature. Tim Dee made a wonderful observation that Spring moves north through Europe at around 3 ½ miles an hour – walking pace.
A question raised afterwards, asked whether all nature writing is inevitably about loss – of a moment, a creature, the viewer, a species. The consensus seemed to be that it is, to an extent – with Dee feeling that nature writing is often elegiac in tone or mood – but that this type of writing can also be simply in the moment, wonderfully factual, celebratory or even joyful.
I thought of this and chuckled darkly a few days later whilst reading the extraordinary, death haunted March Chapter in Dee’s The Running Sky. This must have a body count running into the hundreds, as variously, fledglings drown in water buts, chicks die in nests, or are snatched by passing weasels, a black headed gull drops from the sky and road kill abounds. In a drive from the West Country to East Anglia the corpses of wood pigeons, moorhens, hedgehogs, badgers and more, stiffen alongside road verges, as gorging corvids pluck hungrily at the dead bodies of rabbits. That’s not to mention the same chapter’s lists of stuffed bird collections, blown-eggs and skeletal remains.
As I read, I found myself nagged by visions of Victorian museum cases and Murdo Macleod’s bizarrely Gothic Observer Sports Monthly cover, where Roy Keane stares malignantly through the open beak of a Raven skull. Yet, simultaneously, I could recall Tim Dee’s sheer expression of delight in describing the watching of birds in flight and the recollection of his youthful realization that Ted Hughes ‘was a poet with a pair of binoculars’.
Fired by the morning’s talk, I was eager for the midday examination of Extremes of Exploration, with William Atkins, James Macdonald Lockhart and Andrea Wulf. Here, another engaging panel, ranged across all manner of landscapes and topics. The definition of ‘nature writing’ was also explored, asking what is it, how does it relate to or differ from travel writing and whether, or not it requires a trip or expedition of some kind to count. The panel agreed that physical travel was not essential, but that in the best examples, some kind of journey, deep into the local, the close-at-hand, or internally, into the mind is usually central. One example cited was the Pathologies chapter in Kathleen Jamie’s Sightlines where the author looks for nature on a bodily, cellular level. There’s a breathtaking moment when, using a microscope, Jamie traces valleys, deltas, marshes, peninsulas and atolls within the lining of a stomach.
The figure of Alexander von Humboldt loomed large, with Andrea Wulf referring to his vast, perhaps in recent years undervalued, contribution to and influence on natural history and its writing, not least upon Darwin and Thoreau. The historian describes Humboldt as having possessed a kind of pre-Lovelock vision of nature as a holistic web of life, who also predicted climate change. The German naturalist’s view of nature as a global force and his bringing together of science and art was presented as being vitally important, especially today; when, in Wulf’s view, science needs Humboldt’s kind of passionate advocacy for nature, every bit as much as the rational stats, facts and figures. For Humboldt, coldly quantifying and measuring the world was never enough, in addition he believed that scientists also had to retain a sense of wonder and that this should always be cherished.
Sunday began with a turn towards the built environment, as Bradley Garrett, Inua Ellams and Richard Reynolds looked at a variety of ways of exploring and engaging with urban landcapes.
Once more the discussion buzzed with energy, as the writers moved us through a wide variety of ways to navigate cities and city life. Subjects included the city as playground, the land grabbing of public space and what can be done to counter this and, in a striking aside, Inua Ellams suggesting that the way hip hop lyricists have to negotiate the structured beats of the music, is the same as the way people have to move around and negotiate their place within cities.
The panel also talked about a range of strategies for taking back some control over the shaping and vision of urban space. Some of these could be creative interventions, like ‘guerilla gardening’ and Midnight Runs along with other types of urban exploration – entering city buildings and sites in unexpected and sometimes illegal ways – climbing, tunneling and jumping in.
All agreed that regardless of form it takes, some degree of pushing is usually necessary in order to challenge the developers, local authorities, government departments and others who are driving and expanding the privatization of more and more of our public space.
After further discussion of these and other matters over lunch with Andrew of Some Landscapes blog, the afternoon session promised examination of the mythic figure of the Green Man, place and the English eerie and the very future of our world.
A vibrant, punchy ‘Excavation of the Myth of the Green Man’ saw Nina Lyon, Robert Macfarlane and China Miéville, with Ellah Allfrey, delve into the cultural meanings of Green Men and other anthropomorphized hybrid plant and animal creatures.
Throughout, rather more questions than answers were raised, as the panel wondered if there is perhaps a move, or retreat towards vegetable placidity – as opposed to animal energy or aggression – “Do we want to speak vegetable?” and whether we are managing or being managed by nature.
Centring around Nina Lyon’s recent Uprooted: On the trail of the Green Man, conversation fizzed and bubbled as the panel looked at human impulses to return to, reject, or retreat into animal or plant existence. The conversation flitted between mythic creatures, church carvings, ancient nature symbolism, the ‘wood wide web’, ‘micolexis’, the ‘hipsterisation’ of animals – as manifested in the fashion (in some places) for hare, owl and other animal manikins and masks – and the political use of myth, landcape and nature by different shades of the political spectrum, from the left, through ‘vibrant materialism’ to fascism.
There was also some intriguing debate over the symbolism of foliate heads, asking whether the leaves at the mouth of Green Man figures were on their way in or out. Could/Should these faces be interpreted as growing out and being disgorged, or going in and being swallowed?
The choice of direction could fundamentally change the meaning of such figures. One way, perhaps representing a sense of connection with nature and the wild, while the other suggests a feeling of doom – a central horror of the new anthropocene age – as the shock of human control, or loss of control, over nature becomes increasingly apparent: humankind eats itself and everything else.
My favourite theory amongst those that came bouncing out like handfuls of intellectual grenades, was one from China Miéville that suggested the current fashionable boom of interest in nature and nature writing, was a way to ‘aggrandize and domesticate’ suburban and semi-rural land. The reason being, because increasing numbers of people have to move out to the suburbs, as they can no longer afford to live in the centre of cities – where they really want to be.
Following this somewhat breathless bout of idea haggling, came a more gentle, though no less resonant, conversation – again featuring Robert Macfarlane – this time alongside Andrew Michael Hurley and Stephanie Cross.
Here the writers tried to define ‘the eerie’, agreeing that it is distinct in feeling and tone from horror and the uncanny. There is something of a particularly (or peculiarly) English tradition of writing in this genre, which includes amongst its more notable practitioners, MR James and Algernon Blackwood.
The eerie, the authors felt, is something that creeps from the inside – a sensation that is felt from the pit of the stomach, rather than the brain. This form – despite the novel length of Hurley’s The Loney – is often at its best when brief or fleeting. The eerie is about the glimpse, rather than the gaze, the peripheral rather than the centre. The mode here – similarly, but more subtly than the ripe mechanics of Gothic literature – is one of unease and disconnection.
In this context, setting and place are of vital importance; Macfarlane wondered if ‘the uncanny has left the domestic sphere and moved outside’.
When used in relationship to land and ultimately nature, as with the strange, shifting and liminal Northern landscape of Hurley’s The Loney, the eerie works in opposition to the certainty of the Pastoral. Rather than being grounded in the seasons; the ordered and the expected, the eerie in landscape terms is rather a place of doubt and uncertainty. Here you’ll find unseasonal flowerings and untimely appearances, which will disturb and unsettle your waking, and sleeping mind.
Closing the festival, the final discussion brought Owen Hatherly, Fred Pearce and Gaia Vince together to ask ‘Where next?’ This panel looked at possible futures for our built and natural landscapes, questioning the extent to which politics and local communities can influence what happens.
The ultimate practical question was whether Earth’s artificially, human hastened decline and decay is inevitable, or can we put a halt to our destructive tendencies and reverse the tide? On a more philosophical level the central issue addressed, was what the potential ‘Anthropocene’ epoch might mean for our species and the rest of the planet. If human activity really has pushed the rest of nature into a different state, then what, if anything, do we do about it? Or think about it?
To my surprise, the conversation was not one of unremitting doom and there emerged a small sense of hope: though a hope heavily predicated on fundamental, global scale changes to our historic ways of behaving.
After three days, my head was filled with a jumble of ideas, theories, quotes and speculations. I’d added multiple titles to my mental to-read list and made several actual purchases from the festival’s pop up book store. In addition to a gloomy sense that we have screwed everything up, I also found that the importance of the notebook had been firmly impressed upon my mind, along with a slightly jarring feeling that a sense of humour in nature and landscape writing is welcome when it appears – and that there ought to be more of it.
Finally a feeling that scientists, natural historians, poets, writers and artists, ought to work more not less closely together had been echoed, not least by Tim Dee, who noted that all the above are already united by paying close attention to the landscapes, plants and creatures around them. A way of looking at the world perhaps.
Three days later, I was trudging to work, via the nursery where I had to drop off my youngest son. From his pushchair he likes to look out for cats, or birds and other animals we might see on the way.
Around the corner from our destination, a familiar airborne scream sound suddenly announced an arrival. We looked up to see three, four swifts appear abruptly in the air above, as if jumping in from hyperspace. As the birds whizzed and sped and turned above us, I thought of Rob Cowen’s trump card. In a period when news of human activity seems more relentlessly horrific than ever, for the briefest moment I felt a sense of something bigger, something that continues to exist outside all that. For that moment, the trump card was mine and I’d won.
A second more and the swifts had gone. The sky is empty now.
Links & Reference
China Miéville skews the picturesque
(one talk I didn’t manage to see)