If you are working, volunteering or looking to get ahead in conservation, if you have a vague interest in nature and a good camera, and perhaps more pertinently if you are a middle class urbanite with a pokey garden and pretensions of being a writer, the chances are that you’ve got a blog. Chances are your writing is littered with simile, metaphor, imagery and dirty great chunks of purple prose.
Stephen Poole last year wrote an article describing nature writing as bourgeois escapism, but I’d certainly like to distance myself from what was an ill conceived and scientifically naïve rant (comparing the issue of invasive species to immigration and the EDL is a common retort by those with an axe to grind against environmentalists but it is misguided and offensive, serving only to highlight the authors ignorance). Indeed, Poole’s argument was subsequently dismembered by both Mabey and Monbiot, and if I were looking for an example of what I admire and look for in modern proponents of the genre, I would not go much further than these two. It is the idealisation of nature with which I take issue, and a large portion of the guilt for this idealisation must be left at the door of urban-centric media and enthusiasts in east London flats who fancy themselves the next Emerson or Thoreau.
Yes, I understand that I am opening myself up to claims of hypocrisy, but I’ve never understood why you would have a cake and not eat it.
There are different groups worth exploring here: those who would classify themselves as writers and those who would classify themselves as conservationists. When done well and with something to say, both have merit. However, those with a different agenda now saturate the genre. New media has a lot to answer for, but the production of content for contents sake has diluted the quality of real nature writing with regular missives about the joys of watching urban foxes frolic in your backyard. If you have an interest in the natural environment, you may not want to hear from a Shoreditch hipster with a sudden epiphany about nature (or epiphany that nature writing is the next gravy train). Practitioners in the sector are much more likely to hold your interest. There are many underrepresented areas in nature writing that I personally would love to hear from. Where are those who are in or work with the farming industry to improve biodiversity on farms? Where are the writings of those working at the sharp edge of conservation? But the genre has been overrun, and the majority of those who write about nature now would fit Poole’s charge of indulging in escapism. It is certainly true that much of the content now produced fits a certain demographic in terms of writer and audience.
Maybe I am speaking overly from the perspective of a scientist and practitioner, but I see the role of nature writing as educational, not just an excuse to describe a list of nice things you have seen in verbose, flowery prose. This does not hold the interest unless you are Wordsworth, and you are not. This whimsy and romanticism of nature writing, particularly those of the urban-centric, often neglect to inform and educate. Anthropomorphism and simile are rife, comparison of ecological players to cultural touchstones rampant. If I see another piece comparing, say, the world of insects to Game of Thrones, I may put my fist through the screen*.
But my complaint is not new. Even Thoreau, worthy but impenetrable to a modern reader, was accused of sentimentalising nature. It may be inescapable for an urban society to yearn for a (seemingly) more wholesome and natural lifestyle. It may be an idea, however, to live, breathe and try to understand at least a small part of the many areas of the natural world worth writing about before sitting down in front of a keyboard and pouring forth an assault of prose on the wonders of a wildflower in a concrete jungle. Too much is an image half seen, the wider picture not comprehended or even contemplated. A simple nature=good, man=bad narrative pervades and any human element appended with an adverse adjective, an elegiac phrasing.
I understand that not every writer can be Carson or Wilson, offering a reasoned, engaging and researched piece of work without becoming dry. Nature writing certainly lends itself to the aesthete, but purpose and clarity should not be eschewed in the name of verbosity dressed as art. A tough act to follow, but Aldo Leopold, a better writer and a better naturalist than Thoreau, shows the perfect balance of evoking natural imagery and sensations while educating and
drawing the reader in to his world. For a beautiful example of how to write up a citizen science project, read 65290 or Sky Dance. The prevalence of nature blogs risks making the most unique natural spectacles humdrum and ordinary through doggerel. Good nature writing like Leopold elevates the commonplace in nature into a spectacle all of its own through insight and compassion for his subject.
And yes, I do realise the irony of trashing nature writing on a nature writing blog. This is, to some extent, a pre-emptive hoisting by my own petard. I’m also an occasional hat wearer and beard have-r and I use the word ‘elegiac’ at least once in this post, so what the hell do I know?
*I’ve resisted the urge to link to some of the worst offenders, I’m not that mean