Super natural: the rise of the new nature writing

Writing about nature never stands still - and in this age of climate crisis and habitat loss, the genre ranges from astonishing lyricism to ruminations on agribusiness.

Flocks of birds off the shores of Louisiana. Sean Gardner / Reuters
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Every other chapter or so in Gerald Durrell's autobiographical animal collecting stories (I'm thinking of The Bafut Beagles, Three Singles to Adventure or The Drunken Forest), our hero steps into the jungle "to answer the call of nature". When I was 7, and Durrell certainly was my hero, I thought this meant he was somehow talking back to the wild: uttering words in atonement for his trapping and caging of it, and then deepening the meaning of his capers by communing with both bush and bushbabies, and finding commensurate things to say to the great green throb of life. It was quite a while before I realised what he was actually doing.

Something of my 7-year-old confusion lingers in my adult mind as I look along my bookshelves. Nature writing might be my thing but I am uncertain how best to think of it or how even to house it. I have books of poetry next to field guides, science next to dream-texts, travel literature alongside autobiographies. I am a chaotic librarian and a poor carpenter but it isn’t only that. Nature Writing is not simple to define any longer and my books are announcing this.

Until relatively recently, things were clearer; the British branch of nature writing was mostly about the countryside, its landscape and creatures; it was non-fiction, non-scientific prose characterised by close attention to living things that were known and often loved by its writers. It almost always felt as if it had come from the pre- or barely industrial past and, with rare exceptions, nature writing was nice writing and it walked – stout shoes and knapsack – a thin green lane between hedges of science on one side and a wild wood of poetry on the other. It was different from either, though fed by both, and it bled palely back into each. It developed through letters (for example, Gilbert White), diaries (Francis Kilvert), essays (Edward Thomas) and journalism (W?H Hudson). These writers, the old nature writers, gather equably, ecumenically, on my shelves. But they are outnumbered these days.

Current writers are still nourished by those past masters – that bluebell haze coming through, even if the woodland has gone – but, somewhere between Rachel Carson's Silent Spring (1962) and Richard Mabey's Food for Free (1972), modern nature writing was born. Almost 50 years of writers since have worked under new terms and conditions. The twee and the tweedy are extinct. Writing like William Boot's in Evelyn Waugh's Scoop (1938) of the plashy fen and questing vole is today as rare as real water voles have become. Country diaries survive in some newspapers but DDT, extinctions and Ted Hughes's gory poems saw off the nice in the 1970s while nature itself – under the human heel – has been pushed, bloodied, shrunken and ruined to the front of the stage ever since. There, even enfeebled, it has called up new descriptions and fresh thoughts.

In this crisis of the end of nature, poetry, polemic and scientific prose have vastly lengthened the nature-writing booklist. Meanwhile old taxonomies, hierarchies and clarities have disappeared. John Clare has been reinvented, the mad, provincial, peasant poet shown to have been a consummate fieldworker, his poems discovered to be as accurate as the great bird textbooks. The director of the British Trust for Ornithology (a scientist) cites Ted Hughes’s poem on returning summer swifts as central to his understanding of what the bird life of Britain means. J?A Baker’s shamanic, poisoned and possibly made-up account of wintering peregrines in Essex in his book The Peregrine (1967) adds to what we know, scientifically, of Falco peregrinus.

Yet, we cannot bear (or bare) too much or too big a reality. A roll call of population crashes and extinctions would say it all, but pressing losses in the last few years have sent us back to study and write tellingly of what we have, to remember what we once saw, to attend with a deathbed diligence to what is going. And to do this, above all, in the first person singular. If they were dependent on facts alone these books of new nature writing would fail; their strengths and authenticity come from their subjective eye. Ian McEwan, promoting his climate change novel Solar (2010), has spoken of his surprise at the paucity of fiction on the big theme. More will undoubtedly come but the scary stuff is hard to write and often blows noisily but without much sense. Judging various national poetry competitions in the past decade, I have yet to see a decent global warming poem, but I have read many excellent ones on blackbirds.

The point of a barometer is to give a particular but devolved reading. A poem might be the same. The more a globalised future awaits, the sweeter the local patch seems, whether it is old apples on an allotment or a bird list from a walk to work. Nowadays, to look closely at the local feels, weasel word or not, sustainable. New nature writing is modest. It has become apprehensive in both senses of the word. A cautious but knowing approach and retreat seems de rigueur. The new nature writer is personal and intimate and the opposite of the self-aggrandising big game hunter or summiteer. Recent books take various forms: memoirs, anthologies, essays, anthropologies, cultural geographies, travelogues and natural histories. Many of them combine several of these modes within their pages. They are commonly feral in feel. The work of W?G Sebald might, in part, be to blame but mixed styles and shifting registers seem appropriate for our broken and fugitive times and for the swansongs we’ve made for them. However, a single mood (in two gears) characterises almost every one. They are elegies, rememberings of things passed (Michael McCarthy’s Say Goodbye to the Cuckoo, Andrew Greig’s At the Loch of the Green Corrie) or they are prayers, devotions to what remains (Robert Macfarlane’s The Wild Places, Patrick Barkham’s The Butterfly Isles). They are also strikingly ordinary – with much that is domestic and suburban and local to the lives of their writers. Kathleen Jamie’s prose books Findings and Sightlines are this, so are her poems in The Tree House. Richard Mabey’s Nature Cure exemplifies it. Alongside their contemporary bucolics, these books relish various kinds of democratic ecology (the give and take of nature, its sportive wit) as well as being alive to human politics (the legacy of the Clearances in Scotland and Ireland, for example, or the impact of agribusiness).

Back on my shelves, the new pluralism – of words (the many genres that can qualify as Nature Writing) and of natural life (introduced, escaped or generally man-altered nature is as common as anything that we might call wild) – has had a retroactive impact on my old books and categories. It seems right that they all tumble together. The jungle of my library becomes one way to describe nature today: desperate times call for disparate measures. Who’s to say what fits the bill? We need to load as much onto the ark as we can. Why, indeed, stop with books or writings that are avowedly about nature?

Much writing, most writing even, at some point or another addresses the natural world. Landscape or animals or weather in fiction or non-fiction tell us much about the meaning of nature in our time. Its place in this writing reflects how most people experience nature and think about it. Nature is and will continue to be mostly little more than incidental music, scene-setting, backdrop, metaphor and simile, what radio producers call “wildtrack”.

But even this is important. Where more informed nature writers might be hobbled by knowledge and detail, less scientifically knowing observers who are good writers can give the very best smack of the real. There is no better evocation of a curlew’s call than the poet W?S Graham’s one-word coinage, “love-weep”; nor a better line of psychogeography than Macbeth’s, “light thickens and the crow makes wing to the rooky wood”. All nature writers should read as much other writing as they can, and pay heed. Shakespeare and Graham are doing the life of the skies (the phrase is D?H Lawrence’s) not air traffic control or trying to manage nature, as some nature writing would have it. And that is worth thinking about.

Martin Amis has a shtick going with birds in his novel, The Pregnant Widow. The same species crop up several times: yellow birds like canaries laugh in elms, crows scavenge and in the sky some vaguely portentous – "Homeric strivers" he says – raptors (probably) are shifting, always on rigid wings. These birds might have little truth but they are very telling. His crows are particularly good. Already blackened with meaning (see Macbeth and much else), Amis manages to notice something new about them that feels believable. Their faces, he says, are "famished and bitter … half carved away". We get it at once and register the rightness. The "half carved" is spot on. He has looked and thought and made the birds work for him without wrenching them too far from their reality.

All of the many ways of approaching nature ought to be admissible. None will offer the last word. A new poem on a blackbird can say as much (or as little) as David Snow’s beautiful monograph on the birds he studied in the Botanic Garden in Oxford in the 1950s. Both, and all Nature Writing, will always and only be approaches or impressions. Nature’s writing is not nature writing. Nature writes itself not a version or replica. Its evidence is its reality, its hard matter in the world, as Henry David Thoreau called it. Nightingales sing and wildebeest migrate. Their existence and their action is their language and their writing. Song phrase and hoofprint. We are not the same.

“Whereas I write a poem by dint of mighty cerebration,” the conservationist Aldo Leopold said, “the yellow-leg walks a better one just by lifting his foot.” Nature writing is predicated on our separation from its subject; it is co-terminous with the origins of the man-made mediated world. As we moved away from the animals and their lives that we started among, as we broke from what the poet Edwin Muir called “that long lost, archaic companionship”, we began depicting them.

The mountains of the Brandberg massif in west central Namibia rise from a flat plain in bare and jagged stabs of red rock. The desert laps at them like a calm sea. In this eye-stretching wide space the Brandberg’s 50-kilometre corona of slashed granite rushes upwards like a child’s drawing: Moominland or Mordor, an ur-mountain, with near sheer sides and toothy tops.

In the caves and overhangs of the Brandberg are many paintings of oryx and ostriches, giraffes and zebras. The best known is called The White Lady, though the human figure depicted among the animals is now thought to be neither white nor a lady. It is probably a teenage boy hunter at the point of initiation, decorated and adorned and being pushed (the man behind him seems to be poking him with a stick) into a seeing state by an elder. Hunting was made possible by visions.

The frieze of animals and people, of half-men and half-antelopes, moving together and apart, was made sometime between 2,000 and 6,000 years ago. Homer or Hesiod, or the writers of Genesis, would have understood it. It might be a shopping list, a menu, a diary, a dream-catcher, an altar, or none or all of these things.

What is certain is that it represents a human negotiation with the world outside the cave, field notes that are both accurate and imagined, a beautiful ochre projection of a human understanding incomprehensible to the non-humans it depicts. Isn’t that nature writing? To this day there are still oryx and ostriches at the mouth of the valley down which The White Lady is running. I watched them across the winnowing haze through binoculars from the passenger seat of a 4x4. I counted them and wrote the tallies in my notebook. That is nature writing too.

Because nothing can capture and hold the oryx or the ostrich sufficient to replace the living thing, every attempt – my counts, the cave paintings – can seem relevant. No single definition of nature writing will stick. The world is everything that is the case. Meanwhile, it is in our nature to make writing about nature. It is a definition of us and of the gap between the rest of the natural world and us.

To this end I might stop fretting about my shelves and we might withhold from adjudicating whether a species list of moths caught in a trap at Portland Bill in Dorset or Shakespeare’s poem about a phoenix can be nature writing and whether one is truer than the other. When something pushes through and sticks, the accidental truths of the guidebook are as valuable as the baffled wrongness of phoenix poems, the polished words of a poet as good as a scratched field note.

Nicholas Redman has compiled an extraordinary book called Whales' Bones of the British Isles, a directory and gazetteer of all the whale skulls, vertebrae and rib bones that are strewn across the UK, some visible, many lost, a few remembered, most forgotten. He lives in South London not far from the Thames. Or, rather, his workplace is there: a modern house with blinds drawn on every window, a single army-surplus camp bed in one room, and the rest of the space tight-jammed with the grey hulks of filing cabinets, stuffed bookshelves and splitting cardboard boxes. He uses an ironing board as a desk. Every available inch of the house is made from the details of as many of the whales' bones of Britain as Nick has been able to secure. The bones strewn across the country, that is, that have parted company from their bodies and that have found their way onshore and inland, a skeleton scattered as if dropped from space and made of skulls, vertebrae and ribs, some visible, many lost, a few remembered, most forgotten.

In a lock-up garage nearby Nick has more boxes and some rescued ribs leaning against the walls like huge half-rotten oars. “People don’t know what to do with them any more and offer them and I feel I must take them,” he told me. A blade of baleen rested on a shelf behind his head like a scythe.

From all his findings he has compiled his extraordinary book. It is a book that nobody else wants as much as he does. He lists whale remains in museums but they can mostly take care of themselves and his real concern is with the farm buildings and barns roofed from bones; the fence posts and field edges made from them driven into the earth; the jawbones donated by a sea captain to the fen town of March and erected in 1850 as Melville was raising Moby Dick on the other side of the sea; the grottoes of marine topiary in forgotten Victorian gardens; the slipway for boats made of a whale rib cage on Harris; the arches of ribs raised into the sky like ruined church entranceways; the half-buried vertebrae near old whaling ports, boneyard monuments to their own slaughter; the set of jawbones made into a child's swing.

The odd thing is that Redman is not interested in whales. A celebrated and publicly mourned northern bottlenose whale strayed up the Thames in 2006 and came within a few yards of his files and photographs but he didn't go to see it. It was still alive. His fascination is only for what people have thought to do with whalebones. No more than that, but no less than that either. Living whales don't interest him but his is a true work of nature writing, an account of how it marks the world and an answer, like Melville's great novel Moby Dick, to its call.

Spectral pollen lights up a visitor: an extract from Four Fields

In half an hour the sun hurried behind the dunes. The mountains and the plain softened briefly, pastel-rubbed like sea-washed glass, and then disappeared into the dark; the skyline along the west held an ember-rift of orange, but it thinned from overhead, and the black from above descended the sides of the sky’s dome to join the black from below. For minutes it seemed very dark and then the starlight came. Nothing is more beautiful. A field, in the fieldless place, growing at night. The entire sky was stuffed with stars like spectral pollen. They lay thick and deep and ran down to the ground: the Milky Way arching its voluptuous leash. After the lone tyrant sun of the day, barging all over, came the democracy of night, ancient lights, a myriad silver pin-suns. Their waltzing spangle said you are there and we are here, here and there and everywhere; a concert of stars spun through space, distant, open-mouthed, silent yet shouting; now is yesterday, here was tomorrow. The shock comes, once again, at the demonstration of so much other, a star for every lark, a star for every grain of sand. And once again, the oldness of the view, the way looking up shreds your life, strips it back, joins you to all those who have looked up, millennia of watchers, a star for every gazer.

You could, it seemed, step from one to another along the warming crowded stretch overhead, where the stars flowed and swam together and turned from jewellery into cloth. It seemed so, yet the stars teach only rock-like cold-blood. There is no human kindness in the Milky Way and no stride long enough to tread the star chamber. We might be at a party, but we weren’t invited. I looked down at the sand at my feet. I had been walking around our tent looking up. There was a puff adder squeezing under a fence, alive this time, chunky and muscled, just beyond the end of my flip-flops. It looked like a businessman’s tie thrown on the floor of a hotel bedroom. Brown sand against brown sand. I could see faraway stars reflected in its green-gold chips of eyes. Perhaps it could see the same in mine.

• Four Fields by Tim Dee, published by Jonathan Cape, Dh110

Tim Dee is the author of The Running Sky and the co-editor of The Poetry of Birds