How to write nature, from nature writers

Having got back into reading following my stays in hospital, I’m back to collecting titbits about nature writing including hints about what makes for successful pieces.  By this I mean writers and readers sharing their ideas rather than what I am gleaming from my own reading and writing.

Robert MacFarlane as always have excellent things to say on the topic.  In An Antidote to Indifference, he writes about the resplendent array of reading we have available to us today.  That “a twenty-first-century culture of nature has sprung up, born of anxiety and anger, but passionate and progressive in its temperament.”  He quotes Ali Smith as saying “the place where the natural world meets the arts is a fruitful, fertile place for both” and goes on to tell us how powerful writing can change the reader, and through the reader, the community.  It can help shape our relationship with the natural world, and with place, instilling in us a consciousness and conscience about both.

“The best of this recent writing is ethically alert, theoretically literate and hyper-wary of the seductions and corruptions of the pastoral. It is sensitive to the dark histories of landscape, and to the structures of ownership and capital that organise – though do not wholly produce – our relations with the natural world.”
– Robert MacFarlane

This leaves the potential nature writer facing a challenge of Everest proportions, seemingly as difficult as plunging to the floor of the Mariana Trench.  But he also cites Alice Oswald as saying that poetry can save the planet by “putting our inner worlds in contact with the outer world”.  A much more handle-able task, one we can turn in our palms and caress with our fingers.  More like a beautifully cut, lovingly polished gem than a conquered mountain.  No less difficult but not quite so overwhelming, keeping Oswald’s words in mind we can make the first move, rather than standing paralysed by the trial, or trail, ahead of us.

When I was reading about the Canal Laureate, I came across some advice from Jo Bell:

“The most important thing is to look at it with your own eyes, not those of previous poets. Sit or walk by the canal and really pay attention. Use the five senses – what can you hear, smell, see, touch and even taste? What are the nearby buildings or trees like? Be specific – if you can see a bird, tell us what sort of bird it is. If you can see a building, is it concrete, brick or stone? Details help your reader to share in what you are seeing.”

This is excellent advice, known by most writers, but not always followed.  I have an exercise where I split the page into five and in each bit I make notes about different senses; what I hear, smell, taste, touch, and see.  Whilst I will never have much under smell (I have a terrible sense of smell), I will at least remember to think about it when I’m taking notes.  Similarly with taste, on the whole we don’t literally taste nature, but it brings in different metaphors and helps you see things in a more holistic way.

She also has a great youtube video about permission, not at all related to nature but great for writing and writers:

In writing Nature’s Architect, a book about the return of Beavers to Scotland, Jim Crumley gives us a glimpse into how he writes.  Towards the start of the book, he quotes Margiad Evans:

“If you want to write with absolute truth and with the ease pf a natural function, write from your eyes and ears, and your touch, in the very now where you find yourself alive, wherever it may be.  Carry your paper and book with your and conceal yourself in the fields.  Watch and be in what you see or in what you feel in your brain. There is no substitute even in divine inspiration for the touch of the moment, the touch of the daylight on the dream.”

In his search for beavers, Crumley finds himself in less familiar territories, telling the reader that when this occurs it takes time for him to become accustomed to a place, that he walks slower, listens and looks harder, being still more often and through this he begins to build a familiarity, an intimacy, with the landscape.  It is this relationship that allows writers to convey a habitat with such precision, with such knowledge, as though the land or nature herself were a friend they know well.

“The simple way in was to listen.  Thirty years of writing about nature for a living have taught me how to put my ear to the ground, especially where there is something quite new afoot… [by experiencing an animal for oneself it] becomes more alive, more vivid, more captivating in the eye of the beholder and in his imagination, and the insights are deeper and truer, when they are gathered in silence and solitude.”

It can be frustrating to read nature writing in which the author has been able to go to far flung, inaccessible places.  Places where my bank balance and wheelchair cannot take me.  The same is true when I turn to photographers.  But the best nature writers and the best photographers can see what is right on their doorstep.  It just requires time and effort to built the relationship with your immediate environment, time and effort that most of us forgo as we head out the door, get in the car and travel off to somewhere more traditionally considered nature.  I am just as guilty of ignoring the road as I head off to the park.  And this is something that I want to work on over the next few months.

Writing about nature from your bed is something that Elisabeth Tova Bailey has done incredibly well and I will be posting about her book, The Sound of a Wild Snail Eating, very soon.

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