I have an ambivalent attitude towards nature writing. Yet when I had a message from Joanna Walsh yesterday morning – as the full impact of the Conservative victory in the British general election began to sink in – asking me if I wanted to contribute to a series of fictional and creative responses to the news in 3am Magazine, it was landscape that suggested itself to me. This is how it started:
The fields are blue, the woods are blue, the hills are blue, the meadows and fens and floodplains are blue. Open your window and the chances are that what lies before you, as far as the eye can see, is blue. The grass is blue, the trees are blue, the lanes and motorway verges are blue, the hedges and edgelands blue, the greenbelt and brownfield blue. The view is blue. Click here to read the whole thing (it’s not long!)
It was the political map that did it. So blue, and such an ugly, saturated, inexorable blue at that. At the time of writing the piece, the very tip of Cornwall (the St Ives constituency) hadn’t declared, as it has to wait for votes to be flown in from the Scilly Isles before it can start counting. But still it occurred to me that you could start in Cornwall and walk a long, long way through the country before you saw any red, or yellow, or green. I voted Green, in the city, and of course we think of England as green – the hedges and fields, the full-to-bursting meadows and cool rolling hills, when in fact much of that blue map, that should be the countryside – should be green, if not Green – is nothing of the sort, is an arable wasteland.
It was that disjunction that set me writing, my revulsion at the blue of the country I should love, and the fact that, truly, the countryside is being de-greened, de-countryfied, de-natured, year on year. The tight little bursts of red on the political map of England are alive, vivid, angry; the vast swathes of blue are empty, dead, sprayed with the pesticide of conformity, industrialisation and conservatism. So I wrote an angry piece of nature writing, coating everything that should be vivid, individual, dappled and various with a thick slick of monotone blue. And this got me wondering about what it is about nature writing that I find problematic. I grew up in an environmentally-minded household, and spent many of my childhood and teenage weekends tramping up and down the Essex sea walls, or around its nature reserves, and my holidays in the more remote parts of the British Isles – the Gower, North Wales, the Hebrides, the Lakes, south-west Ireland. My parents’ bookshelves were and are heaving with nature books, but my birdwatcher father was – and is still, I think – more likely to be found with a volume of the mammoth Birds of the Western Palaearctic open on his lap, or a breeding birds atlas, than, say, a Roger Deakin. They are collectors of the New Naturalist series, a project which, while certainly well-written, is primarily scientific in intention.
Spend all day walking the blustery coast at Bradwell, whether as happy adult or grumpy teen, and you don’t want to open a book of nature writing when you get home. Today I live in suburban London, and my family and work situation mean that tramping the countryside isn’t something I have access to as much as I want, but I certainly don’t fill that gap with reading about it.
There’s another problem, too, with nature writing, and it’s one that associate – no doubt a little unfairly – with the kind of writing produced by Robert Macfarlane. Now Macfarlane is a superb writer (enviably so) and an erudite scholar, and, so far as I’ve had contact with him, a genuine and thoughtful person. But his writing – his kind of writing – for all its honest intentions, of reconnecting its writer and the rest of us with the fading countryside, the vanishing wildness, and for all its consideration of the people who live close to the landscape and of the landscape itself, seems to me like a modern version of Adamic naming. It forces language onto the landscape as if in an attempt to claim dominion over it.
Language is something packed in the knapsack, along with the Ordnance Survey map, the compass and the thermos flask, when the writer sets out. The landscape is seen as something to be written about, not something to get lost in. Landscape, for me, repels language. It is the opposite of language, and the dazzling array of nature-words collected and shared by Macfarlane in his latest book, Landmarks, leaves me cold.
When I am out in the land, the world, the wild, I don’t want a vocabulary list scrolling through my brain, like the data streams in people’s headsets in sci-fi movies, however apt and quaint those terms might have been for the people who first used them. The nature writing that I feel most comfortable with is the kind that reads like a by-product of the writer’s interaction with the world about them, not a primary goal, it is the notes scribbled out at the end of the day, collapsed knackered in a chair in the half hour before you make it to bed.
If we’re out walking, you and I, and I see you pull out a notebook and pen from your jacket, the only thing I want to see you write in it is the name of a bird or a flower, added to your daily or seasonal list, not a poetic description of the poor sodding thing. And the terrible thing is that, walking out in the English countryside today, you’re quite entitled to come over all poetic and romantic about a flock of lapwings, a or fritillary or a service tree in a hedgerow, because they’re doomed, they’re tragic, they’re vanishing, they’re being brutally and systematically eradicated.
Some new collective nouns: A memory of lapwings A memory of wagtails A memory of skylarks A memory of sparrows Memory of a cuckoo
— Jonathan Gibbs (@Tiny_Camels) May 9, 2012
But to lavish poetry, or poetic language, on them seems, to me, otiose, even self-serving. So the only nature writing you’ll get from me is this bitter, angry, anti-poetic burst of political frustration and despair.