The history of nature writing

For the sake of brevity, here I am focussing on the history of nature writing in the UK as that is where I live, unless I explicitly state otherwise.

How has nature writing changed over time?

18th Century

Often considered the pioneer of nature writing and the first ecologist, Gilbert White is an important figure in the history of nature writing and is said to have helped shape our relationship with nature. His work inspired and influenced well known nature writers including Charles Darwin.

Gilbert White began his venture into nature writing in 1751 at the age of 30. He was living in the parish of Selborne and life wasn’t really going the way he’d expected. Despite his plans, he found himself in this rural village carrying out priest work and tending his garden. It was then that he began his gardening calendar, a popular pastime for the age, consisting of notes about his plants. Over time this developed into a more poetic style of writing which was descriptive, philosophical, imaginative and emotive. As he was writing, rural Britain was undergoing a lot of change and the agricultural way of life was becoming less common.

In the Autumn of 1758, White found his calling. He was walking in the parish when he saw a group of house martins. Given the lateness in the year, they caught his attention. Something about their presence at that time in the calendar captivated him and set him on a path into the world of nature. His passion, curiosity and enthusiasm helped shaped his thinking and his writing. He was interested in everything and employed scientific rigour in his approach. In particular, worms and their importance in the web of life fascinated him, as they later would Darwin. As well as Darwin, Wordsworth and Coleridge would later read and be inspired by White.

His book, The Natural History of Selborne, was published in 1788 and is the fourth most published book in the English language, printed in many other languages as well. Unlike naturalists before him, he looked at how animals behaved and related to each other. His great empathy allowed him to understand and respect nature in a way that was not common at the time. But it was not just his love of the natural world that led to the popularity of his book. He was a poetic writer with a lovely turn of phrase; where other writers may have simply said it was cold outside, he chose to say “water freezes under people’s beds”. This style made his writing more personable and easier to connect with. His “visual onomatopoeia” helped readers step alongside him and experience the village with him.

His book consists of a number of letters, some real, some writing which would later be made to look like letters and some written purely for the book. This was a style that suited the subject, the unfolding of nature expressed through the passing of time between letters. As he was compiling the book, he drew in social history of the parish as well and throughout it he captures not just the landscape, but also the human and non human inhabitants.

Following the publication of his work there would be a philosophical shift in how we viewed nature, and hence how it was written about. Prior to this, there was a heavy focus on conquering and domineering although there was a movement which was questioning the right to colonise nature. At a time when most naturalists were charging around the world collecting unusual specimens from far flung places, White was focussed on his back yard, a place that was much more relatable and accessible for most people. Perhaps it was this contrast that led his work to stand out so much and have such an impact on the way we write about nature.

With his simple, human voice, White provided an alternative to the big adventures and paved the way for others to study the nature which lies outside their door.

The 18th century also saw the publication of Thomas Bewick’s A History of British Birds. Published in 1797, this is considered to be the first field guide for non experts and shows a widening out of the field of ecology.

19th century

The 19th century, the era of the Romantics, saw an increased celebration of the natural world and of individual nature beings within it. Partly a reaction to the industrial revolution, poetry of this time often featured a romanticised landscape or glorified view of nature. It was writing of emotion and love and intense imaginings. William Wordsworth, one of the writers of the time, remarked that poetry should begin as “the spontaneous overflow of powerful feelings”. This movement revered the relationship with nature over that of a relationship with humanity, there was a distrust of the manmade world. As such, the lone artist was an idealised figure.

Historically, nature writing has been the realm of single, white, able bodied, British or American men, such as Gilbert White himself. This is probably not surprising given that this was true also of writers in general. However, as a newly developing genre, it did allow women the chance to step into a world which was not already dominated by men.
The early days of nature writing saw what was essentially biographies of nature, writing which described the lives and habits of birds and animals. Then, around the middle of the 19th Century, Romanticism gave way to a more pragmatic and scientifically orientated way of thinking. By the end of the 19th Century, American writers such as Thoreau and Muir had established the genre of the non-fictional nature essay.

20th century

The twentieth century was one of great change outside of the realm of nature writing. We saw technological developments, two world wars and a shift in how most people interact with nature. Nature writing, possibly predictably, began to decline.

MacFarlane explains that the publishing of Cold Comfort Farm by Stella Gibbons in 1932 made it very difficult for nature writers. Gibbons’ book is a parody of nature writing and rural novels and meant it was hard for such works to be taken seriously. This also coincided with the world wars and a time of turmoil and vast change in the way we interact with the world. Technology was coming to the forefront and nature was not seen as a modern pursuit. Nature writing from this point forward was generally not considered to be literary. Perhaps because of this, we see a more diverse range of voices entering the field. I wonder if it was because it was not considered literary that these writers were able to get their foot in the door.

As Williams noted in 1975, “There is almost an inverse proportion, in the twentieth century between the relative importance of the working rural economy and the cultural importance of rural ideas.” This idea has been echoed by Smyth:

“We never longed for the land until we moved to the city; we never knew what we had until it was gone. Now our ideas about our country’s nature are channelled through throwback mythology and camphor reeking nostalgia.”

In the 1960s, writers turned to urban settings for metaphor or idealised views of the natural world. This may be a result of increasing awareness of the plight of the environment, providing a way of retreating or of returning to a nostalgic past. This started to turn again by the 1990s when ecocriticism emerged as an academic field.

21st Century

In 2003, Mabey claimed that nature writing had virtually vanished, being replaced by guidebooks which gave the impression we know all there is to know about the world.
However, in the US, the genre was still thriving. It is possible that this divergence between the UK and the US was down to the physicality of the countries. In the UK, land untouched by humans was becoming rarer and our reach was seen more and more in the countryside. The US, by contrast, is so large that it still contains vast areas barely seen by humanity. There is simply more of what we traditionally consider nature. That is, the wild, untamed, untouched land where one may retreat to to experience solitude. Another suggestion is that the actual diversity of wildlife in the UK has declined over recent years and with it nature writing.

The context we live in creates and dictates what writing is available and consumed. Today, we have novels and poems and essays which are set in between skyrisers, tower blocks and giant buildings dedicated to business. Art imitates life and life imitates art. But there is almost always a backlash. In a world where most writing is focused on urban life, on capitalism and commercialism, perhaps it was inevitable that nature writing, as a sharp contrast, a relief from the concrete, would gain in popularity?

The recent resurgence of nature writing is something that most people cannot have failed to notice. Whilst the publication of H for Hawk by Helen MacDonald in 2014 is often considered a turning point, the genre of nature writing had been increasing in popularity before this. Books such as Kathleen Jamie’s Findings (2005), Richard Mabey’s Nature Cure (2005) and Robert Macfarlane’s The Wild Places (2007) all predate this alleged turning point by over seven years.

In the 21st century, awareness of nature has increased and along with it culture, media and behaviour have also been shaped. There is no escaping the issues we face. We are up against climate change, pollution, extinction and other major issues and these are inevitably going to impact on the literature world. Literature mirrors the world we live in. And whilst not yet mainstream, there is a significant shift towards cooperation and collaboration, towards a society which values community over commodity, connection over consumption and which considers humans as animals amongst other animals. This change in attitudes has created both space for nature writers to write but also for nature writers to get published and hence for more people to be able to read nature writing.

Next Why do we read and write nature writing?

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