The limitations of nature writing

This is the final part of my reflection on nature writing and what it is and what it does.

The limits of nature writing

“All theses with hundreds more far off and near
Approach my sight and please to such express
That language fails the pleasure to express”
– John Clare, A Scene

Despite all the wonders and powers of nature writing, it is not a magical concept which can set all wrongs to rights. The experience of the reader, inevitably, depends very much on how the reader engages with the writing. A reader, closed minded from the start, will not have the same experience as a more open minded, nature orientated reader. And language has limits.

Richard Jeffries, in his 1887 essay “Nature and Books”, argued that writing about nature was indeed futile as it is impossible to capture the true colour of a dandelion in words and nature far extends the reach of any number of books, being such a vast topic. W. H. Hudson echoed this sentiment in 1926, “there must be a limit to the things that can be recorded… that the life history of a bird cannot be contained in any book however voluminous it may be”.

This sentiment is echoed by Dickinson in her poem “Nature” is What We See. She too does not feel that nature is something that can be pinned down, that can be expressed accurately. We can never truly mimic or recreate the wonder of the natural world. And yet many of us continue to try.

Could this thrill of the chase be part of the appeal for nature writers? An attempt to pin down the light perfectly or to capture the colour of a butterfly with precision? We can never truly describe our experiences within nature, and nor can we ever seek to capture in words all the variety of nature. But this venture, this quest to do so, provides an inexhaustible quarry of metaphors and writings. Perhaps it is that the nature writer seeks to find the key with which to accurately convey the world into words, a search for a holy grail?

How many have said of the sea, “it makes me feel something I cannot say”?
– Richard Jeffries

Cocker writes that “The real danger is that nature writing becomes a literature of consolation that distracts us from the truth of our fallen countryside, or – just as bad – that it becomes a space for us to talk to ourselves about ourselves, with nature relegated to the background as an attractive green wash.” But is this a fault of nature writing, or a risk associated with it? Or, is it simply the difficulty of having a hard to define genre?

With nature writing spanning from what Mabey has described as “imaginative science writing” to “imaginative travel literature”, can we truly expect all nature writing to meet the bar that Cocker sets out? If a writer is not intentionally setting out to form a work destined for the new nature writing shelf in the bookshop, can they be criticised for what they do produce?

It seems to me that the limitations of nature writing are those of all writing, firstly the incapacity of language to truly express what we want and secondly the tendency for forced categorisation.

And in conclusion…

The simple question of what is nature writing turns out to be one which could be answered in a volume of books. It is a changeable entity, dependant on time and place, for its definition. However, it is this sheer diversity which means that there is something for almost everyone within the umbrella of the term. Whether you prefer poetry or prose or creative non fiction or novels, you will find something to your taste within the world of nature writing. After all, we are surrounded by nature, it is only inevitable that our literature reflects this.

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