Authors exploring nature writing at the 2012 Edinburgh Book Festival
Jean Sprackland, Robert Macfarlane, Richard Mabey and Kathleen Jamie on the great outdoors
This article is from 2012.
There has been a genuine resurgence of interest in the field of nature writing over the last decade. Allied to an increase in the number of related programmes on television, the publishing world has really embraced this renaissance, with a wider range of writing on nature available to the reading public than ever before.
This range goes all the way from lifelong experts on a particular area to admitted novices delving into the genre for the first time with brilliant results. The Edinburgh International Book Festival has more than its fair share of writers from both ends of the spectrum this year.
Someone who has had a go at nature writing for the first time is Jean Sprackland, and the results are mighty impressive. Sprackland is better known as an award-winning poet who lectures on creative writing in Manchester, but her recent book Strands: A Year of Discoveries on the Beach is a perfect example of the crossover between the more literary world and this field of neo-nature writing.
As the book’s subtitle suggests, Sprackland spent 12 sand-filled months properly examining her own local piece of coastline between Liverpool and Blackpool, delving deeply into the topography, history, social context and biology of both the area and the things she was finding washed up on the shore.
‘I’d written a few poems about things I’d found on the beach but I hadn’t yet really spent time with the objects and thought about them and looked at them properly,’ she says. ‘And I wanted to write a more discursive piece of work that was about the objects; do some research, find out where they’d come from and how they’d got there and what they were made of and so on. That tiny idea just grew into this book. I wanted to bring some of that poet’s eye to it, to look at things that perhaps don’t get noticed very often, but I definitely wanted it to be different from my usual writing practice as well.’
That idea of bringing ‘a poet’s eye’ to nature writing is a thread that runs through much of the work published in the genre over the last five years. One of the finest nature writers in the country at the moment is Kathleen Jamie, another poet who brings her new book Sightlines to the festival. But you don’t have to be an actual poet to bring poetry to nature writing. Robert Macfarlane has published three award-winning nature books, most recently The Old Ways, an account of his time walking the ancient footpaths and tracks of Britain. Macfarlane has no formal poetry background but he sees the connections between the two forms.
‘I listen very carefully to the rhythms of my sentences, and work very hard at gem-cutting some of my images,’ he says. ‘In that sense I see overlaps of craft with poetry. But I’m also interested in the larger-scale narratives and pattern-makings that book-length non-fiction permits.’
A clear benefit in this idea of looking at things afresh is that it can really open the eyes of the reader to new facets of their surroundings. Read Richard Mabey’s Weeds, or Edgelands by Michael Symmons Roberts and Paul Farley, and it’s impossible not to have your view of the world shifted on its axis. The same can be said for reading either of Tristan Gooley’s books, The Natural Navigator and The Natural Explorer. His frank and direct approach to engagement with the outdoors will no doubt make for a fantastic event.
Gooley is a big, bluff outdoorsman in the vein of Ray Mears or Bear Grylls, but that doesn’t stop him appreciating the power of the written word too. ‘For me, the difference between good nature writing and great nature writing is that the latter enables us to form a connected picture of what’s around us. Someone can write beautifully about a tree, but at the end of the day that’s just a piece of beautiful writing. If someone can write well about a tree that enables me to see that tree’s place in the landscape, how it relates to the soil, the rocks, the air, then that’s very exciting. If the reader puts down a nature book and still sees the world the same way they did before reading it, then the writer has failed.’
Macfarlane agrees whole-heartedly. ‘I’m fascinated by what might be called the undiscovered country of the near-at-hand: the astonishment and beauty available to us in the margins of our cities, the skies of our towns, the hedgerows and copses of our fields, as well as our mountain summits and gold-beached islands.’
One of the reasons for this rediscovery of our connection with the land around us is perhaps a reaction to our increasingly sedentary, plugged-in 21st century lifestyles. ‘I think that must be part of the context,’ says Sprackland, ‘that there’s a rediscovery of the natural world amongst the generation of people who were perhaps brought up with less contact with it than previous generations.’
‘More and more of us spend more and more time virtually connected to the world and to each other,’ Macfarlane says. ‘And our children spend increasing amounts of time indoors. Inevitably, this practical withdrawal has resulted in a longing and a nostalgia for nature, and for a felt relationship with landscapes and places.’
Whatever the reason for the renaissance, it’s producing some extraordinary writing about humanity and our place in the world, creating a real sense of reconnection with nature into the bargain, so long may it continue. Just don’t keep your nose buried in a nature book so much that you forget to look at the world around you once in a while.