William Wordsworth: Poetry, People and Place (Week 2)

See also Week One of  Future Learn: William Wordsworth, Poetry, People and Place

Week two

This week is looking at the Prelude.  It is a long, autobiographical poem which Wordsworth worked on for a lot of his life, revising, editing and changing as he changed.  Because it spanned a significant part of his life, it can show us how Wordsworth evolved and how his writing developed over time.  As part of the course, in addition to looking at the poems, we’ve been able to look at the manuscripts which provide interesting insight into Wordsworth’s writing process.

In particular we’ve been looking at three extracts; Was It For This, Spots of Time and Boat Stealing.

Spots of time

This extract is Wordsworth telling us his theory about life, that there are “spots of time” which may seem insignificant but which will turn out to be important. These might be intense emotional experiences which can be recalled and bring strength and relief and restoration to the mind.  They bring together our past and our present. The moments themselves will turn out to bear fruit and have value later down the line.

My spots of time

Sitting on roughly poured concrete,
now set. Soil leaks from the strawberry patch
and baby hands reach out.

…ten years on, same spot,
no strawberries, concrete replaced by paving slabs.
A butterfly flutters and lands and rests
on a teenage hand.

Connection for the unconnected.

***

Dead fox. Oldest sister.
Duty calls a soldier.

Stand guard.

Youngest sister released.
Fetch back up. (Please hurry).

Eerie. Uncomfortable.
There is no protocol.

No training has prepared
or taught how best to act.

Stand guard.

Watch over russet corpse.

Stand guard.

Watch over the dead fox.

Stand guard.

(Please hurry).

And when it blinks, do not scream.
There is no instruction guide.
And no one told this small child
that death moves within the dead.

Boat Stealing

DSC_0492
Boats on Derwent Water

In Boat Stealing, Wordsworth is describing one of his own spots of time.  At this point in the course, having already engaged in discussion and creative exercises, we are asked to write a short piece, 250-500 words about this extract.  These will be marked by our peers and in turn we will provide feedback to others.  Here is mine:

Boat stealing is written in blank verse and this reflects the sense of Wordsworth telling us about the incident. The form echoes a stream of consciousness, like that of a dream or a recalled memory. It is conversational and story like, even starting with “one evening I went…”. This helps the reader to feel like they are there and makes it come alive. This line also suggests that the speaker is the adult Wordsworth retelling the incident.

The first part of the extract uses a lot of images about light eg “the moon was up, the lake was shining clear… small circles glittering…”. Despite it being night time, these bring to mind a sense of safety – it is dark but the boy can see and that light helps him to feel safe. He uses similes to describe the boat, “like a man who walks with stately step…” which help the reader to get a sense of the boy’s mindset and emotional landscape. He seems fairly confident, proud even despite knowing what he is doing is wrong. This “troubled pleasure” is one familiar to most people, that of pushing the boundaries in youth and feeling sure that even though what you’re doing is wrong, you’ll be ok. As this is a relatable feeling, the reader is drawn in and feels connected to the incident. The language all suggests a knowledge of the nature that surrounds him and this adds to the sense of surety.

About half way through the extract, emotions turn from confidence to something more lustful and potentially sexual:

She was an elfin pinnace; twenty tomes
I dipped my oars into the silent lake,
And, as I rose upon the stroke, my Boat
Went heaving through the water like a swan.

Then suddenly, everything changes. What he thought was the horizon no longer is. “A huge Cliff, As if with voluntary power instinct, Upreared its head.” The descriptive, suggestive language is now replaced with more simple language showing a boy rendered almost speechless with shock. The contrast between the language of the first and second part make the image of the cliff as a dangerous being more powerful. Wordsworth personifies the cliff, suggesting it is alive and the boy no longer proudly rows but instead he paddles in a hurried way, with trembling hands. The urgency of the situation is reflected in the long sentence structure and repetition of “struck and struck again”. These images help the reader understand his fear. What the boy thought was the horizon, suddenly wasn’t. What he thought was a landscape and nature that he knew and felt safe in was suddenly unfamiliar and terrifying.

The extract ends with Wordsworth explaining how he was haunted by guilt and an uneasiness for many days. At this stage, I think we are hearing Wordsworth as a boy, but we know that since he is writing as a man the incident has stayed with him for many years.

Learn About Weather

Learn About Weather is a Future Learn course run by the University of Exeter and the Met Office.  I wasn’t sure what to expect from it but I’ve really enjoyed it, racing through the four week course in less than two days.  It’s been a real mix of things and a great introduction to the weather.

It looks at the atmosphere, how changes in the earth’s temperature create weather, why weather varies across the globe, jet streams and air pressure.  It’s all been pitched at a reasonably basic level, accessible but comprehensive.

As well as the technical side of things, we’ve looked at weather lore and whether there’s any truth in sayings and beliefs.  We also shared our own local lore and I was able to include some of the bits and pieces I’ve been collecting.

  • clear moon, frost soon
  • when the mist comes from the hill, then good weather it doth spill. when the mist comes from the sea, then good weather it will be
  • if woolly fleeces spread the heavenly way, be sure no rain disturbs the summers day
  • if the cock goes crowing to bed, he’ll certainly rise with a watery head
  • the sharper the blast, the sooner it’s past
  • rainbow in the morning gives you far warning
  • ring around the moon, rain or snow soon
  • when the sun sets black, a westerly wind will not lack
  • swifts flying low, rain is on the way

I’ve learnt a lot about how air pressure affects the weather and now I have a vague idea what a weather map is saying which is quite satisfying!  I also know where our weather comes from and how it affects the UK.

Towards the end of the course it focuses in on specific aspects of weather, for example the different types of clouds, how they’re formed and what they mean in terms of rain etc.  This is something I really want to get firmly stuck in my head.  I’ve tried learning cloud names so many times and I always forget.  But the way this course has approached them, I think I have a better understanding of what the latin names mean and thus hopefully it’ll be easier to hold onto the knowledge.  I’ve also found flicking through the Cloud Appreciation gallery and trying to guess the cloud type has helped.

Naturally, we’ve also looked at rain and other forms of precipitation and what counts as a shower and what counts as rain.  Frost, storms and climate change have also all been looked at as well as how weather affects leisure activities.

I’ve found the whole course interesting and whilst I’m not planning on looking at weather in any detail just yet, I know I’ll be returning to it as part of my nature and writing project.

Nature and writing; September day trip

This month’s day trip was to tropical world. When I’m on trips, I’m conscious of the balance between wanting to write and photograph and document what I’m seeing whilst also actually experiencing it. This is one of the occasions the five senses activity comes in handy. You can just jot down notes about what you’re feeling and sensing and return later to make it into something more cohesive. I didn’t actually manage this as my health was poor and I wanted to get as much out of being there as possible.

I have long had such conflicted feelings about places which keep animals, like zoos and aquariums. I enjoy visiting for the most part as I do like to see the animals and find out about them. But a huge part of me knows that it’s not ok. Animals shouldn’t be kept in small enclosures without stimulation. And I know that some venues are better than others. I was lucky to grow up with Chester Zoo as my nearest animal attraction and they have a good record for conservation and looking after their animals. But even so, I remember going when I was young and seeing lions in small pens with nowhere to hide. Hearing young children screaming and shouting and trying to get the animal to perform.

I’ll come back to the topic of animals as entertainment at some point. For now, I just wanted to note the conflict I feel.

William Wordsworth: Poetry, People and Place

I’m doing an online course, Future Learn: William Wordsworth, Poetry, People and Place, which has been helping me look at poetry alongside my research into nature writing.  I’ve really been enjoying it and have raced ahead.  One of the things I’ve found very interesting is how I react differently to unseen poetry when I read it and when it is read to me.  As an avid reader of fiction, I tend to skim read and my eyes are darting ahead and providing clues as to where the words are headed.  When poetry, or anything, is read aloud to you, you can’t do this.  This has allowed me to focus more on the words being said and also led to some surprise twists in where the poem is going.

Week 1

This week has been an introduction to Wordsworth and looking at two of his poems; The Tables Turned and Old Man Travelling, neither of which I’d read before.

To help me slow down and ingest the poem, as opposed to my usual fast reading, I’ve been making notes and have written down some of my thoughts and reactions to the poem.  This has also created space for me to play with the ideas that Wordsworth touches on.

The Tables Turned was my favourite of the two.  It is helpful to know that this poem was published alongside a second poem, Expostulation and Reply. In this, Wordsworth depicts a scene where his friend Matthew was imploring him to read and be purposeful instead of sitting on an old grey stone dreaming his time away. Whilst that poem does contain a response, as the title suggests, it is in The Tables Turned that Wordsworth truly expresses himself.

The Tables Turned begins with lighthearted rhyme and a friendly rhythm. It is a jolly start to a poem and suggests that he is not preaching to his friend, indeed within the first three lines he says “my friend” twice. He gentle teases his friend whilst still encouraging him to rise from his books and step out into nature.

This poem has a very clear message, written explicitly in stanza four:

Come forth into the light of things
Let nature be your teacher

But like most poems, there is more to it than that. Throughout the poem, Wordsworth uses metaphor and imagery to weave three ideas of education; that of scholarly learning, that of religions preaching and that of nature as teacher. In the 18th century, when this poem was written, the idea of acquiring knowledge through reading was considered a superior way of learning. It was also an exclusionary one and, as we know from Wordsworth’s prelude, he wanted to write in such a way that his work was open to everyone. In the same way, learning from nature was much more accessible for most people that more formal methods of education. With this in mind, we can see Matthew as old fashioned, as having more traditional views and Wordsworth being on the cusp of new thinking. The use of form and language in The Tables Turned also reflects this idea of seeking to be understood by all.

Yet, and this is perhaps my favourite aspect of the poem, the lines are filled with irony. Whilst claiming to want all to read his poetry and suggesting that nature is the universal teacher, accessible to everyone, it was within books that his own work could be found. This irony is most deliciously expressed in the penultimate stanza:

Sweet is the lore which nature brings:
Our meddling intellect
Mishapes the beauteous forms of things:
– We murder to dissect.

And in analysing this poem, as so many people have, we are dissecting it ourselves.  Other examples of irony in the poem include Wordsworth begging his friend to quit his books (penned by writers such as himself) and declaring enough of science and of art, of which nature is both.

We were asked to consider which lines were our favourite and whilst many people chose the lines arguing that nature should be your teacher, I loved the image of murder, which contrasts strongly with the rest of the images.  I also really like the final stanza:

Enough of science and of art;
Close up these barren leaves;
come forth, and bring with you a heart
That watches and receives

It is the image of the leaves which chimes so strongly with me. It feels like this stanza is the poem in miniature with the leaves pivoting the reader from books to nature. On the one hand we have dry, brittle leaves of books, dead and crumbling (could this also be the old approach to learning?) and on the other we have the fresh, verdant, life filled leaves of the woodland. It could also be saying to the reader that books, as bits of nature which have been written on, can only contain a fraction of the wisdom that nature itself can teach. It begs the reader to question why they are spending time, and toil and trouble, in their books, dead snatches of nature, when they could be outside experiencing the true wonder of the living nature.

I found the gendered language in this poem interesting. It is not unusual for nature to be spoken of using feminine pronouns (a topic for another day) and in Expostulation and Reply, nature is referred to as feminine, as mother earth. But in The Tables Turned we have masculine birds and a masculine sun until half way through when we see Nature as feminine. From a factual perspective, Wordsworth is correct in talking of male birds singing but this is not normally something poets trouble themselves with. And in today’s convention, in many cultures, the sun is masculine with the moon as feminine. However the change being half way through the poem makes it feel like it could be something more significant than that. It feels like an interesting mirroring of the traditionally masculine book learning and the feminine emotional/experiential learning, or the polarity of scholarly or religious learning and learning from nature, that is to say learning from men vs learning from mother nature.

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.

Why do we read and write nature writing?

Why do we read and write nature writing?

We read and write nature writing to engage with nature and natural history for all the reasons previously discussed. However, the act of writing or reading about nature is clearly different to the act of going for a walk. It allows for reflection, guided thoughts, metaphors and a glimpse into the mind of another. Nature writing and nature writing reading help us to see things with new, focused, eyes.

For the writer, nature can provide a muse. To write it, nature writing begs us to pause, to think, to notice and to attune our senses. This as an exercise in itself brings great benefits but the act of seeing, hearing and feeling in order to write does, for me at least, enhance this experience. When you are thinking in order to share ideas with others, you tend to develop the ideas more clearly, more rigorously.

We have already seen that some nature writers have intentional aims when they set out, in particular those which are political or activist. MacFarlane said that “The natural world becomes far more easily disposable if it is not imaginatively known, and a failure to include it in a literary regard can easily slide into a failure to include it in a moral regard”. This suggests to me that there is strong element of environmentalism driving his own writing.

Nature writing can challenge us, demanding we stop taking nature for granted or quietly rebuking us for doing so. Nature writing can be a call to arms to question the assumptions that capitalism, consumerism and industrialisation bring. Nature writing can even just be a reminder that nature exists. Moss explains that nature writing exists because individuals want to understand their own engagement with nature. They want to unpick why nature matters to them and in turn why it is that nature should matter to all of us.

Nature writing gives authors a way, not just writing about nature, but writing for nature, advocating for the rights of the other beings that live alongside us. Nature writing is a way of reaching revelations and understanding the self, both for writer and reader. Nature, and hence nature writing, provide a retreat from humanity. They provide something which (mostly) seems fixed in our ever changing world. They provide something reliable and dependable in a society where nothing is certain. They give us a moment of stillness in the busy rush of being busy for busys sake.

Nature writing allows a particularisation of the overwhelming entity which is nature. Through personal notes, memories and observations this consuming, infinitely large and incomprehedible concept becomes one we can reach out and touch. In nature we face our mortality, our smallness and our fleetingness and in nature writing we try to comprehend this.

We live in a world of short attention spans, and within a limitation of human lifespans, meaning our momentary glances at the landscape or our walk in the woods is not even a tiny dot in the life of the world itself. All natural beings move at different time scales. By engaging with nature writing, our attention can be drawn to this and perhaps we too can slow down and experience the world in a different way, at a different pace.

Nature writing decentralises the human, returning us to be a part of the world, not the only focus or thing of importance. Through nature writing, and nature itself, we can experience both being very very small and very very large. A humbling and yet expansive experience.

Nature writing engages the imagination not just the intellect and this brings us back to symbolism. Nature gives us a vast dictionary of metaphor to play with. We can see ourselves in the tree that bends over wearily. We can connect to the exhausted part of ourselves as we watch a bee, buzzing away, never ceasing to work. With nature’s rich bank of metaphor, we can weave together the natural world and the human condition, something which provides a sense of something otherwise undefinable and evoke feelings and ideas that are difficult to express.

John Stuart Mill wrote that “What made Wordsworth’s poems a medicine for my state of mind, was that they expressed, not mere outward beauty, but states of feeling, and of thought coloured by feeling, under the excitement of beauty… In them I seemed to draw from a source of inward joy, of sympathetic and imaginative pleasure which could be shared in by all human beings.”

When discussing his own writing, Roger Deakin said, “I want [it] to bring people not just to think of “trees” as they mostly do now but of each individual tree, and each kind of tree.”

Perhaps the greatest aim of many nature writers and readers is simply to show or see the world differently. Arguably, more accurately or at least more personally. And language and writing is an excellent vehicle for doing this.

We need bird poems as much as the RSPB”
– Tim Dee

There is something fundamentally different between literature and factual writing and there is something powerful about how we experience each. There is a place, indeed a need, for both, but to have one without the other would do a disservice to the natural world.

Nature writing can be a powerful tool. It can help evoke a sense of place and emotion, it can allow an author to share their passion or a reader to develop theirs and it can help to filter down scientific advances in a more accessible way. It provides information in a more relatable way than pure facts or textbooks do. James Stephen said that “I have learned… that the head does not hear anything until the heart has listened, and what the heart knows today the head will understand tomorrow.” And this feels like it is one important reason for nature writing to exist. It gets under the skin and gets churned over in the mind in a way that other writing about nature does not.

Language, and specificity, help us to see things, they isolate particular characteristics and draw our attention. Language changes how we think or locks us into a particular way of thinking and how we talk about nature shapes our stories and thus informs our decisions.

“How we use words to portray the world in acts of imagination is a serious matter. Metaphors have the power to structure attitudes that express themselves as action”
– Adelheid Fischer

The power of language is inevitably a key part of why nature writers chose to write the way they do. Creative writing, whether it be a personal essay, a poem or prose, has the power to evoke emotion and a sense of spiritual conviction. Creativity takes something inanimate and turns it into something of inspiration which stirs us. The nature writer may take something which is often overlooked, that goes unseen or unthought of and turn it into something that holds our attention.

Ruth Sawyer, as a storyteller, holds the art of the story in high regard. She discusses the joys of stories, the ways they can create wonder and laughter, inspire courage and love. The ways in which they can bring us to our knees in reverence. There can be no doubt that literature, in all its forms, is powerful.

Literature can provide the capacity to shock us in a way that news reporting and facts cannot. Authors can take us into the future, to a world where we have destroyed nature, where there is mass extinction, it can even take us beyond human existence. Indeed, a (debatable) sub section of nature writing, that dealing with the Anthropocene, is doing just that. These writings often aim to jolt our imagination and potentially have the power to make more of an impact on us than many other forms of media.

Literature can change us, revise our ethics, shape our consciousness, open us to possibilities and help us see afresh. The very existence of nature writing opens up a conversation about nature and for those who read nature writing, the conversation can easily extend to the relationship between nature, self, landscape, ethics and language. In essence, nature writing can be a gateway into a more eco-literate society.

Turning away from the writing that shocks and scares and guilts us, I wish to turn to Robin Wall Kimmerer who writes with love and care about nature and language in her article Speaking of Nature. She notes the importance of words. Words matter. The language we speak is not neutral. In many cases, the language we use to speak of nature is strikingly similar to that of colonialism but that is a topic for another day. She reminds us that words can be tools to help us, to inform us. The Hudson River, for example, was once called “the river that runs both ways”. Perhaps in today’s world, Hudson is more helpful, but surely it is still important to know the nature of the river and of the two, the latter is both more beautiful and more evocative. The names we use matter. Think of a loved one, would you dream of (seriously and continuously) using an offensive nickname?

One of Kimmerer’s students, Carson, writes on the use of it to describe non human things:

“It numbs us to the consequences of what we do and allows us to take advantage of nature, to harm it even, free of guilt, because we declare other beings to be less than ourselves, just things”.

This echoes Wendall Berry, who wrote:

“People exploit what they have merely concluded to be of value, but they defend what they love, and to defend what we love we need a particularizing language, for we love what we particularly know.”

Within the same essay, Kimmerer gives a great example of the power of grammar. She speaks of replacing it with Ki as a way of speaking of non human nature in a more respectful way. One of her students, Evelyn, asks “Are these dead limbs considered Kin [plural for Ki] too? Even though they’re dead? Looking at the dead branches on the ground, I found myself thinking a lot about firewood. I’ve always spoken – and thought – as if I were the one who made firewood. But when I thought of that tree as Ki, as a being, I suddenly saw how preposterous that was. I didn’t make the firewood. The tree did. I only picked it up from the ground.” Our language and the way we use it shapes our thoughts, ourselves and our world.

In Fischer’s article A Home Before the End of the World, the importance of precision in literature is discussed. The subtitle, ‘What does it mean when a famous novelist makes careless errors in his depiction of nature?’, could be considered to be a provocative one. But the article discusses the relevance of the type of literature. The main focus is A Home at the End of the World, a novel praised for its detail. And yet, the author, Michael Cunningham, tells of a night sky featuring a hunting hawk, a bird which hunts during the day using sight. Perhaps here the detail is less crucial but in other cases it could have transformed the story or jarred the telling of it.

In writing of all kinds, we use details as short hand, as ciphers. If I write about palm trees, you are going to think it’s likely my story is set somewhere warm and near the coast unless I provide contradictory evidence. This means I don’t necessarily have to explain that we’re on the beach on a tropical island. I may later provide more information but as a starting point, telling you there is a palm tree provides you with a lot more sense of place than if I just said tree. And if I were to tell you the main character was sitting under an old oak tree, you are transported again. Details such as these evoke a sense of place, they are code for certain characteristics. The palm tree denotes warmth and the oak, for me, English weather with all its unpredictability.

At this point in time, we have only identified and named a fraction of the species on our planet. This means there are a lot of unnamed plants and animals out there. And those we are aware of, that we know and have a name for, are disappearing rapidly, lost to extinction*. For those who have had the misfortune of not being scientifically classified and labelled, they have the double misfortune of no one noticing the loss of the species and no one having a way of talking about it. Without a name, it is much easier to slip away, unnoticed and uncared for.

“We will love the earth more competently, more effectively, by being able to name and know something about the life it sustains. Can you imagine a satisfying love relationship with someone whose name you do not know? I can’t. It is perhaps the quintessentially human characteristic that we cannot know or love what we have not named. Names are passwords to our hearts, and it is there, in the end, that we will find the room for a whole world.”
-Paul Gruchow

And thus, one of the roles of nature writing is to help us get to know the natural world, names and all, more deeply.

Next The limitations of nature writing


* We are living in what is known as the sixth great extinction. A third of amphibian species are at risk of extinction. A fifth of known mammals are endangered, threatened or vulnerable. Birds are becoming extinct at what is probably a faster rate than ever before in their 150 million year life span.

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.

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